If you buy organic or cage-free eggs for a healthier, more ethically-produced product, take a second look at where your eggs are coming from. Ordinary US farm standards allow huge flocks of hens in impossibly small cages, while organic standards require uncaged hens fed an organic diet and given access to the outdoors. Unfortunately, many corporate-influenced large organic farms meet organic standards in a merely perfunctory way. 80% of US organic egg production is done in a manner that gives chickens little or no real access to the outdoors.
Should you care about this whether or not you have a deep concern for animal welfare? Yes. Chickens allowed to pursue their natural behaviors outdoors produce eggs that are much more nutritious in ways that ought to interest anyone trying to follow an anti-inflammatory diet.
While organic standards call for hens to have access to the outdoors, on large farms this is often done with tiny exits that discourage birds from going out and very small outdoor yards that serve only a tiny percentage of the birds. Check out Mother Earth News’ in-depth articles on egg production or this video from The Cornocupia Institute:
But what if the eggs are labeled free range? Most of the labels other than organic that you might find on eggs don’t have legal teeth behind them or don’t truly ensure humane farming. This article from the Humane Society gives details on each kind of labeling you might find.
A hen that forages outdoors for its natural diet of green plants, insects, worms, and seeds produces eggs that are visually different from eggs from warehoused hens and that test higher for many nutrients. The yolk is firmer, stands up better, and is a darker shade of yellow-orange. The important carotenoid nutrients found in eggs are yellow pigments, so the color is important.
According to this study funded by Mother Earth News and using independent laboratory testing, pastured eggs have 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more Vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more Vitamin E, and 7 times more beta carotene than eggs from warehoused birds.
Along with the extra beta carotene in pastured eggs, there may also be increased quantities of other carotenoids beneficial for eye health. One study cited ‘ecological eggs’ as having more of these carotenoids (lutein and zeaxanthin) while another found increased carotenoids in organic eggs versus non-organic but not in ‘free range’ compared with non-free range (possibly the not-very-free-range quality of many free-range eggs may have confused things).
So where can you find these nutritious and more humane eggs? If you’re lucky, from your own backyard or a neighbor who has chickens. Failing that, your local food-coop or farmer’s market are good places to look. When buying eggs from the store, use the ratings on this scorecard from The Cornucupia Institute for organic producers.
Many brands of organic eggs, such as Trader Joe’s, Kirkland Signature, and Eggland’s Best, received the lowest possible one-egg rating on the Cornucupia Scorecard. (5/13 update: Our local Costco now carries organic eggs supplied by Wilcox Farms, which received a ‘very good’ three-egg rating from Cornucupia.) Eggs from highly rated producers with better conditions may be a little more expensive. If the ‘one-egg rated’ organic eggs are the only ones that fit your budget for now, don’t give up. Organic standards, even when followed imperfectly, still give birds a better life with no cages and an organic diet without routine antibiotics or questionable additives.
Notes for those whose eyes have not yet glazed over: conventional egg farmers may add the carotenoids citranaxanthin or canthaxanthin to the diet of their indoor chickens to give the yolks of their eggs a yellow color. The latter chemical is also used on fish farms to make farmed salmon pink, and was used in tanning pills before adverse effects on the eyes were found (to be fair, to get the dose in a tanning pill you’d have to eat about 50 eggs).
Have you had pastured eggs from a local farmer? Can you see or taste the difference?