how to shop for eggs: what egg labels mean

I've been confused by egg labels for some time now and decided to put on my "detective hat" to conduct an investigation.

how to shop for eggs: what egg labels mean 1

After all, eggs range in price from $.79 to $5.00/dozen (and I want to know what exactly I'm paying for). They can be jumbo, large, extra large, or medium. They are sometimes white, sometimes brown, occasionally blue or speckled.

My research led me to these basic definitions:

Free Range - USDA regulations apply only to the chickens and indicate that the animal has been allowed at least limited access to the outside. The USDA regulations do not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time an animal must have access to the outside. Free range does not imply in any way that the hens were fed any differently than on normal commercial farms.

Cage Free - This simply means that the hens are not kept in cages, though there are no federal regulations to govern care beyond that.

Hormone/Antibiotic Free - Hormone use is not allowed in any commercial U.S. egg production so this label isn't of particular importance. Antibiotics are used rarely and only for sick birds.

Omega-3 - These are eggs that are produced by hens fed a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Vegetarian-Fed - These are eggs that come from chickens that have a strictly vegetarian diet. This designation does not indicate anything about the living conditions of the birds. Some experts dispute that, when chickens are left to graze on their own, they are not vegetarians. They eat worms, insects, and lizards in addition to seeds and plants. 

Organic - The chickens are fed organic feed, have access to the outdoors, and cannot be raised in cages. It is prohibited to feed these chickens with animal byproducts or GMO crops.

Pastured - These hens are raised on pasture (instead of being kept in confinement) and are allowed to eat a natural diet of seeds, insects, etc. This term is not regulated by any governmental agency.

Local - Eggs that are locally produced may or may not be cage-free, free-range, organic, or vegetarian-fed. That said, the advantage of local eggs is that you have the opportunity to talk directly with farmers about their process. You may even be able to visit the farm and see how the chickens live and are fed.

Brown Versus White - The color of the egg depends on the breed of the chicken, but the nutrients are the same.

Grade AA, Grade A, or Grade B - AA is the highest quality. Then, A. Followed by B.

It strikes me that almost all of the labels are not regulated and may not mean as much as they seem. My "ideal" eggs would be from chickens who live out of doors on a natural diet. I'm not as concerned about Omega-3 additives in the diet since we consume fish and nuts regularly.

Based on my research, I will likely search for LOCAL eggs above other labels. That way, I can talk directly to the "source" (not to mention that it's always a good thing to stimulate the local economy and reduce environmental impact).

If all else fails, it seems that the "organic" label is the most trustworthy.

What "kind" of eggs do you buy? Which labels are most important to you and why?

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39 comments on “how to shop for eggs: what egg labels mean”

  1. This is very helpful...I'm always under the assumption that I should buy brown but it's really not critical...I would love to buy organic all the time but they're pricey...I typically at least opt for veg. fed, antibiotic/hormone free

  2. I was wondering if you found out what, if anything, the label "certified humane" means on organic, cage-free eggs? I am thinking it's probably just made up, but curious to know... Thanks!

    1. Hi Jenny! As far as I know, "Certified Humane" is a label that is awarded by Humane Farm Animal Care (a non-profit organization that sets rigorous standards and conducts annual inspections). The label means that the animals are raised with shelter, sufficient space, and on a diet without antibiotics or hormones.

      Read more here: http://www.certifiedhumane.org/.

  3. We buy organic eggs at Costco. About a year ago I saw a sign for local "organic" eggs. I called on it and they weren't certified (which is fine by me) but the guy made a big deal about the hens eating organic, vegetarian feed. My research tells me that organic feed is less important than the hens eating grubs and a natural diet, which his hens were not permitted to do. I figured that Costco organic eggs were just as good and easier to obtain than the local ones so that's what we've been doing. I'd love to find a local source for naturally-fed hens, though.

    1. Dayna just gave me a business card for someone who sells eggs here in Vail. I'll let you know what I find out about pricing + availability.

  4. A friend of ours has chickens and we get eggs (for free!) from them when the chickens are laying... the rest of the time, the eggs just don't taste as good.

      1. it sure is!

        Because my curiosity was aroused by this post I bought organic eggs at the grocery store the last time I bought eggs. I've been disappointed in them. They were more than twice as much and don't taste any different than the regular ones we've been buying.

        So now I'm looking for a local source for fresh eggs since the friend with free eggs usually only supplies us May-October!

  5. I look for local, pastured eggs. Generally, when a farm uses the term "pastured", I assume they "get it" and are doing it right.

    But I suppose as that gets out, other farms might try to hijack the term. Just like "real food" has been hijacked by processed foods.

    Have you noticed that? I see packages now that say "contains real food ingredients". Nice.

    I don't get eggs at the grocery store. I have a small, locally owned whole foods market (not THE Whole Foods) where I can get local, pastured eggs. I can tell by the label that the farmer is the real deal. It says that they are raised on pasture and get a natural diet of grass and bugs and stuff.

    1. "Pastured" does seem like a reasonable and all-encompassing term, but I hesitate to trust it since it is not regulated. As such, any farmer or huge corporation can smack that label on an egg carton alongside a photo of an idyllic countryside...regardless of its truthfulness.

      1. Absolutely. I would only trust it on local eggs, and the ones I buy are accompanied by a description that clearly says that they get bugs and worms roaming the grass. I should have added that local is also a criteria for me. I get them at the farmers market too and I've been known to drive out to farms, but I am fortunate to have this source at my little local market.

    2. Local and pastured is great, but I'd also ask what they are feeding those hens. Many backyard flocks are fed GMO feeds from the local retail feed store. Being an organic egg farmer, it's a bit self-serving of me, but I'd have to recommend patronizing your local ORGANIC farmers.

      The cream of the crop is freshly laid eggs from local, pastured, and organically managed hens.

  6. I am with you on the local thing. Until now, we've lived too far from civilization to be picky about our eggs, but now...We're moving! And I already know exactly where we'll be buying our eggs. And meat. I'm so excited about having more control over our grocery purchase decisions!

  7. We buy organic eggs. They are not very expensive at Target. With this pregnancy, I have been craving scrambled eggs and I go through a dozen eggs/week. I would love to support a local farmer; maybe I will look into this.

  8. We raise our own free ranger chickens and they are alot of fun! We get wonderful eggs too! Thank you so much for covering eggs and the labels on them. I feel like most people don't realize what the labels on their food means. We don't realize that some labels don't really mean much. I decided to raise my own because they eat most of the bugs on our property and the eggs are fresh but lots of my friends were xhocked to find out that their "free range" eggs were from hens that lived in little cages called lawn tracters. They are moved to different areas every week or so. That's not free to me.

  9. I would love to get chickens so we could have fresh eggs, but unfortunately, I stick to whatever is the cheapest. We eat a LOT of eggs in our household...eggs should be something I spend more money on, but the budget wins.

  10. We almost always get local, pastured, non-GMO eggs. There is such a difference... both in health benefits and taste/color/texture. And I love supporting our local economy. Someday I would like to have our own chickens. We'll see :)

    1. I don't know if I'm that brave. Tim's aunt & uncle have a chicken coop...and those chickens are MEAN. Not sure if that's the norm or not.

      1. Normally hens aren't all too mean. Once they've "gone broody", that is they've collected a clutch of eggs and have become determined to sit on them and hatch them out, they become fairly protective of the eggs. They will puff up their feathers and peck and claw at you if you try to mess with them, otherwise most don't put up too much of a fuss if you reach underneath them to gather eggs. Most roosters are quite protective of the flock too. It's natural for them to do so.

  11. We are fortunate enough to live in a place where we can get fresh eggs, straight from the chickens! And you can get 24 eggs for just $3.00 (and a little chicken show - dancing and singing chickens). We also have a few friends who have their own chickens and those are the best eggs to get! My husband's sister has a chicken farm in Austria and those eggs are by far, the best eggs I have ever had. Big, delicious and HUGE super orange yolks. Delicious!!

  12. I would have to say that the best label in buying eggs is not a label at all but to know your farmer. We get our eggs from a local farmer and the chickens are truly cage free pastured birds. I pull up to the farm to get our eggs and milk and as I back out I have to make sure I am not running over any chickens! The farmer has a mobile hen house that he moves around his farm so the chickens follow the hen house. One time this year for a month or so he did have to confirm his chickens to a tent like enclosure b/c he was having problems with the local foxes eating over half of this chickens.

    Chickens should also not eat a vegetarian feed they should be allowed to eat what they eat in the wild - worms, bugs, etc... Once you buy eggs from a local farmer who pastures raises his/her chickens you will never go back. I just love how orange the yolks are in a pastured raised egg - compared to the yellow/whiteish yolk of a store bought egg - it is amazing.

    1. "Vegetarian-Fed" is a very misleading label. It sounds so enticing, except that...hens aren't vegetarians. One article I read made the point that eggs that have that label are almost guaranteed to be raised in a non-natural environment.

      1. I don't think it's all that misleading, but probably oft misunderstood. It's not that the hens are vegetarian-fed as compared to the human dietary choice of "being a vegetarian", but that the hens are "Vegetarian-Fed" versus being fed mammalian and avian by-products, a practice which can be concerning to some consumers. That claim only refers to what they are actually fed by the producer and not what they actually consume if they are out on the pasture.

        Our cooperative markets organic eggs from hens that are raised under fairly high organic standards, including a requirement that green pasture be provided, but we advertise that "our hens are fed a 100% organic vegetarian diet".

  13. We currently buy our eggs from a local farm, the same one we get our CSA from in the summer/fall. They are mostly pastured. For a while, they were in a very large fenced off area since foxes were eating the chickens too frequently, but now they are outside during the day and inside at night. We are hoping to one day have our own chickens. Our township currently says you must have 5 acres to have any kind of farm animal, but we have spoken with someone on some township committee and he said that as long as your neighbors are ok with it, then they don't bother you. So now to talk to the neighbors and get a plan in place! Our eggs are $4.50/dozen or $6.50/18 eggs.

  14. Stephanie, one of the advantages of working in the small surburbs is access to local farmers. One of my fellow co-worker grow their own produce, and raise their own chicken. We go on weekends to collect eggs, and pay $2 per dozen.

  15. I totally agree with you. It is easier just to look for Organic eggs.
    I am still perplexed why some poultry meat and eggs distributor put "hormone free" on their products.
    NOONE uses hormones for poultry. Why bother writing it in big letters on the packaging?

    1. That's a good point! Labels tend to be confusing to the average shopper so I think that some farms think they can get consumers to spend extra $$$ if the egg carton says "hormone-free."

      1. Given that eggs are products of the hens' reproductive system it is unlikely that they are "Hormone Free". Free from synthetic hormones, yes. "Hormone Free", no.

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