Do you check your egg labels before you buy them, or do you just grab for the cheapest carton you can find? I was somewhere in the middle until I learned that the labels are more of a marketing ploy than a real indication of how the chickens live. Some of you might not care much for the chicken’s conditions, nor do you worry about how that affects the health and nutrition content of the eggs, but I figure if you’re a fan of our site you probably fall more on the side of at least wondering why you should care, so this one’s for you.


Feed mixed with marigolds or paprika lends its tone to hen’s eggs. (Photo: Mike Harrington/Getty Images)

What’s really behind the labels on those cartons?

About a year ago I was talking to a friend, who was telling me that she buys her eggs from the local farmers market because she trusts that the chickens were truly ‘free roaming’. They  have an opportunity to live outdoors, in the open air, and roam the land as chickens are meant to, creating a happier environment for the chickens, and (many believe) produces a better tasting egg.

But isn’t that what “cage free” means, I asked? Suddenly feeling  naive since I’m a pretty savvy marketer by day job, and hate to think that I’ve had the wool pulled over my eyes.

No, she said. All it means is that they aren’t in a cage.  But it doesn’t mean they can’t be crammed into a building, free of a cage, but still in such packed quarters that they can’t actually roam, and offered only a small little space outside that doesn’t fit one tenth of the number of chickens in the building.

So what is the ideal situation for a chicken? And what does that mean to the health of the eggs we eat?

Pastured Eggs.

In Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, he makes a point that “pastured” is the optimal egg label to look for. These eggs come from chickens that roam the “pasture”, grazing on grass, enjoying fresh air and living free of cages or large, cramped quarters. Unfortunately, they can be hard to find at some grocery stores. In fact, many don’t carry them at all,  so you may have to look at your healthy grocer or shop the farmers market to find some that are truly “pastured”.

And remember, ‘pastured’ means they roam free on the land, eating grass and enjoying a happy, healthy life, thus, producing healthier, more delicious eggs.

Many of you now know, and embrace, the idea that the diet of the animals we eat strongly influences the nutritional quality and healthfulness of the food we get from them, so the conditions of the chickens absolutely affects the quality of the eggs they produce.

Healthier chickens, defined by diet and living conditions = more nutritious eggs!

Watch this PBS Video that does a great job of explaining the difference in labels, with visuals of the definitions that we’re discussing.  I love the visual quality of this video, which makes it much easier to understand what the conditions truly are like.

Watch 2013 Festival | The Story of an Egg on PBS. See more from PBS Online Film Festival.


Now that you’ve seen the video, let’s break down the real meaning behind common egg labels based on information provided by the USDA and Humane Society.

Common Egg Labels by Definition:

Definition ‘Certified Organic’: the birds are kept uncaged inside barns or warehouses, and are required to have outdoor access, but the amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access is not at all regulated (therefore it could be minimal and low quality). They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the USDA’s National Organic Program.

Definition ‘Free Range/ Roaming’:  this indicates that shelter was provided with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and the outdoors (which may be fenced and/or covered). This label is regulated by the USDA, but there are no specific requirements around the duration or quality of outdoor access, so this could simply mean there is an opening to a small, crowded dirt yard.
‘Cage Free’:  this label indicates that the chickens were able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water. Note: often, no outside time is provided & there are no specific requirements around how many chickens per square foot are allowed.

‘Vegetarian Fed’:  these birds are not fed animal byproducts, but this label does not say anything about the animals living conditions (i.e. caged vs. outside time) or what else they are fed.
‘Pasture Raised, Pastured’:  due to the number of variables involved, the USDA has not developed a federal definition for pasture-raised products. Generally speaking though, ‘pastured’ means the animals had access to a green field (not just any field) and in turn likely provide high-quality nutritious products. Since this term is not currently regulated there is no way to know for sure unless you directly ask the farmer (at the market).

Natural‘:  as required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as ‘natural’ must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices, such as how a chicken is housed and fed, and only applies to processing of meat and egg products.

Heart healthy eggs.

pastured-chickensRemember, chickens, like us, are what they eat. Any number of studies reveal that chickens raised in a wholesome way, with plenty of time outside to roam and forage, lay eggs that are higher in omega-3s, vitamins D and E, and beta-carotene, which our bodies convert into vitamin A. They are also lower in cholesterol. Bonus points for healthier eggs! Read more here from Take Part to learn what you can do to help with better labeling.

And support your local farmers  – it’s the best way to keep us (and our animals) safe and healthy. Plus it’s just a good thing to do 🙂