Everyone is talking about eggs these days. Grocery store prices have skyrocketed and eggs are in high demand. There are lots of different stories as to why - avian influenza, factory farms mysteriously burning down all around the country, feed causing them to stop laying eggs, etc. Whatever the reason is, it's more important than ever to be informed when you shop so you don't waste your money.
The egg section of the store can be overwhelming if you're not familiar with the different labeling regulations. Look close and you can easily find a half dozen different options. It's no longer just a choice between large and extra large. You're left to decipher the difference between Pasture Raised, Cage Free, Organic, Vegetarian Fed, and Free Range.
There are big differences between each one, and it's important to know what all of those actually mean, so that you're not deceived into thinking you are getting something better than you really are.
Let's take a look at the main options.
1. Cage Free
Cage Free eggs come from chickens that are, well, not kept in a cage. That's about the extent of the regulations. These chickens are typically kept in large houses with several thousand others and fed a cheap diet of corn and soy based feed. They don't get sunlight or fresh forage and are often medicated to prevent illness.
The word 'organic' makes just about anything seem more appealing. We have been trained to believe that if something is organic that it's autmatically better for us. While this is definitely true in some situations, when it comes to eggs it's not much more than a trendy buzzword. Eggs with an organic label often come from the same kind of factory farms as cage free, but are instead given an organic feed. This feed can still contain corn and soy, and the living conditions are still deplorable. Don't waste your money on these.
3. Vegetarian Fed
This is something that you may not realize unless you have kept chickens before, but chickens are not vegetarians. They are omnivores. Chickens needs a high protein diet in order to thrive, therefore vegetarian fed chickens are not going to lay quality eggs. This is another trendy label that is not worth spending any extra money for.
4. Free Range
These eggs are the best choice so far on the list for the concious consumer. Up until the last few years these were the ideal eggs to buy. It didn't get better than free range. But regulations were loosened, and instead of being truly free ranging chickens, companies were allowed to claim this term as long as they allowed for 2 square feet per bird and they spent at least 6 hours a day outside (still contained.) The term 'free range' incites visions of happy chickens roaming freely through the grass, with a healthy balanced diet. That should be an accurate depiction, but unfortunately it's not anymore. It is still a better option than the others but if you can find the next ones, it's worth it to spend a little more.
5. Pasture Raised
These are the gold standard. If quality eggs are important to you these are the ones to spend your money on. Pasture Raised chickens are raised not only ethically, but sustainably. These chickens have fresh forage to feast on, they aren't contained to live in their own excrement, and they get plenty of sunshine, fresh air, and exercise. Wether you believe it or not, that makes a big impact on egg quality.
Pasture raised eggs contain twice as much Omega-3, more vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin A. The difference in taste is night and day. Rich, orange yolks (that haven't been artificially colored by supplements) are packed full of flavor, making regular eggs seem practically tasteless. Not to mention, the likelihood of salmonella contamination is much lower than any of the other types.
Something to keep in mind...
It's a common misconception that pasture raised chickens are not given any feed, and instead only eat grass, bugs, and veggie scraps. This is not the case. Chickens are domesticated animals that require human intervention and regular feeding. The nutritional needs of laying hens include a calcium supplement, most often crushed oyster shells (this helps form strong egg shells) and a good quality feed with balanced levels of protein, carbohydrates, and minerals.
This means even pasture raised chickens eat grain.
Chickens can eat grain and still be healthy birds. Like I mentioned above, they're omnivores. They do not need to be grain free. With that being said, not all chicken feed is created equal. It's best to avoid GMO feed, and heavily corn/soy based feeds. Farmers who raise pastured chickens give their birds a varied and balanced diet just by allowing them to roam. Instead of feed being the only available food source for them, they explore, hunt for bugs, and eat grass and other weeds.
Pasture raised eggs will most likely be the highest cost option in the grocery store, which can be a deterrent for shoppers on a tight budget. One option is to look for other sources besides the grocery store. These days especially, it can be cheaper to buy your eggs directly from a local farmer than to purchase them from the store. It also helps to know exactly where your eggs are coming from. Instead of trying to decode the egg labels at the store, talk to the farmer and find out exactly how their chickens are raised! Farmers who raise their chickens sustainably are happy to answer questions and put your mind at ease because they are proud of their farming practices.
All of the information above also applies when it comes to meat! You can take this same knowledge when shopping for poultry and use it to make the best choice, despite what clever marketing tactics might try to sway you.
If you are looking for a source of local, pasture raised eggs (or poultry!) we are happy to provide them here at The Heirloom Acre. You can find us at the Tulsa Farmer's Market, Rose District Farmer's Market, or order online for home delivery.