For the purpose of this discussion I have to start with the chicken, no matter which came first, because how the hen is treated and fed affects the eggs. There are a ridiculous amount of egg options in the grocery store. Large, Extra Large, Jumbo, Organic, All Natural, Free-Range, Cage-Free, Omega-3 fortified, Soy-Free, Pastured, Vegetarian (huh? Ya.. I’m going to get to that). How do you know if you are getting a good egg? For those of us on a real food plan eggs are an essential protein, source of choline (a nutrient similar to B-Vitamins that works in tandem with folate, and keeps our livers from accumulating fat and has some links to developing brain function.) and vitamin D, among other benefits for your eyes, hair, brain and cardiovascular system. Good quality eggs are required. If you are not fortunate enough to be keep your own flock of chickens (or know someone who does) what kind should you buy? I’m going to break down the labels since it seems that consistency in labeling (or truth in labeling) is not in our immediate future.
Free Range vs. Cage Free
To almost any person with even a good dollop of common sense and elementary grasp of english language you would think that these two terms are interchangeable. You would also probably imagine happy chickens on a wide open field or perhaps even in a quaint barnyard happily scratching away at the dirt. However, there is a slight difference in the terms and neither situation is what you would imagine. Cage-free generally means that the birds are not confined in a cage, but are confined in a barn or a warehouse with no access to the outside. Free-Range signifies that the birds do have “access” to an outdoor area adjacent to the barn or warehouse. Usually they are concrete or dirt pads, and the birds are fed inside so they rarely venture outside. The duration of time they are given access and quality of the outdoor area is not regulated. There is no oversight or audits to check either free-range or cage free conditions.
Organic vs. All Natural
Unless you know something I don’t I have yet to come across an unnatural egg. This in my opinion is a ridiculous label. Certified Organic eggs are uncaged and have access to the outdoors (again, the amount, duration and quality is not regulated). The hens are fed an all organic, vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides. Organic eggs are usually the best quality eggs in a market. If you are buying from a local farmer however the eggs may be a better quality even if they are not “certified” organic. Certification takes money and many small farmers do not want the hassle. Farmers markets are usually the best place to find farm fresh eggs. You can get a good idea of how the hens are living by talking to the farmer.
Omega 3 & Vegetarian Fed & Soy-Free
Eggs are natural sources of Omega-3 fatty acids, but with the recent trend in consuming more Omega 3’s the industry has started supplementing the chicken feed with omega 3’s through the use of fish oil, alfalfa meal, algae, flax-seed and soy. I don’t see too many cartons that will tell you exactly what they are supplementing, but I believe that soy is used most often. Vegetarian fed means their feed does not contain any animal by-products, which eliminates things like chicken feathers and feces, but also takes away bugs! Last time I checked chickens were not vegetarians. They love to eat worms, grubs and the occasional reptile they come across. The basis for any quality meat or egg product is did the animal eat food that it would have in the wild? Chickens eat bugs.. stop forcing them to be vegetarians. Soy-Free eggs are from chickens that have not been fed any soy or soy derivatives. There have been studies showing that when a chicken is fed soy it is present in egg and the tissue of the bird and that is transferred to us when we eat them. The controversy surrounding the prevalent use of soy and the side effects are a post for another day. I avoid soy like the plague.
Pastured or Grass Fed
These are the best eggs to buy if you can find them, and they are hard to find! These birds do not live in crowded barns and fed an unnatural (for them) diet. They have truly free range of a grassy area where they are allowed to eat BUGS, and other natural behaviors. These may not be certified organic, but chances are that if the birds are in a pasture environment they are not being given any antibiotics or pesticides. There is quite of bit of research showing the nutritional benefits of pastured eggs being much higher than other types of eggs. Higher levels of vitamins A, B12, E, folic acid, beta-carotene and essential fatty acids were found in naturally pastured eggs.
From best to worst. Combinations of any are to be expected.
1. Pastured 2. Soy Free 3. Organic 4. Free-Range 5. Cage Free
My Egg Reviews
Since there is no reliable classification of store-bought eggs you have to do your own testing and reviews. I grew up eating eggs from my grandparents backyard, and my own when we once had a small flock of hens. The one thing you notice immediately is the color of the yolk. Farm fresh eggs have a rich golden orange color to the yolks [but... some farmers feed their chickens marigold powder or orange vegetables to get that orangey glow] Many eggs you find in the store have a pale almost yellowish cast to them. The strength of the shell was another indicator that it came from a healthy chicken. Using these test factors I’ve tried every brand of eggs at my local Sprouts Farmers Market, Mother’s Market and Trader Joe’s.
Vital Farms Pasture-Raised Organic Eggs. These are by far the best eggs I have ever tasted. They even come with pictures of the hens in the pasture along with the company’s policies and a description of the treatment of their birds. I had been buying the Chino Valley Ranchers Soy Free Eggs at Mother’s Market, but they were out of stock and bought these instead. They were $6.99/dozen. A little pricey considering we can easily go through 4 dozen eggs per week at our house. I was surprised at the rich flavor, and it passed my two tests for yolk color and shell strength. I will be keeping these on hand for breakfast eggs, but I will use less expensive eggs for mixing in to baking recipes.
Chino Valley Ranchers Organic Omega-3 Soy Free Eggs These are my second choice for eggs, but I am having a difficult time finding them at the moment since Mother’s has stopped carrying them. The feed is soy free meaning that the eggs are also soy free. The yolk color on this is fair. I believe that these hens are in a cage-free environment (big barn/warehouse structure).
Organic Valley Organic Cage Free Eggs “rich in flax seed” When I can’t get to the Mother’s Market these are my eggs of choice. Because it says rich in flax I assume that they are giving flax instead of soy for omega-3 support. And since they are organic the hens do have some outdoor access. This company does have pretty strict rules for their products and they seem to care about what they are producing. These are the darkest yolks that I’ve gotten from the store in this category of eggs. This is the kind I buy most often.
The Sprouts and Trader Joe’s brand of organic, free-range eggs are just ok.
The Trader Joe’s brand has very pale yolks and weak shells. The WORST eggs I have purchased so far have been the Archer Farms brand from Target. They didn’t taste very good at all, and when I used them in baking my finished goods had a strong sulphuric egg flavor. I would not buy those again.
I realize this has been an insanely long post about eggs. I hope you aren't egg-hausted you. All joking aside I hope some part of this was helpful.