If you've seen Food Inc. or any number of food documentaries, you know what conventional farming looks like. So when it comes to shopping for eggs, you probably have an idea of where those eggs come from, but do you really understand the significance of the labels? It's easy to forget about all the underlying factors (like farm conditions and pesticides) when you're likely focused on two things: price and quality. I spoke to expert Betsy Babcock, founder of Handsome Brook Farm, to get a breakdown of all those confusing labels you read on egg cartons at the supermarket. Cage free, free range, pasture raised, and organic eggs . . . what's the real difference? And what about the color of the shell and yolk? All these common questions essentially boil down to the main one: which eggs are truly the best buy? If you have the same questions, find all the answers below.
A "cage-free" label might not be as accurate as you'd hope. "Most consumers are not aware that cage-free systems often do not provide the humane and free living conditions that people expect. Most commercial cage-free systems are designed to hold thousands and in some cases up to 100,000 hens in cramped quarters, with no natural daylight and no access to the outdoors," Betsy said.
"Free-range systems vary widely, as there is no legal definition for most egg type terms. Some free-range systems provide no space outdoors for hens, whereas better systems provide access to the outdoors, which may or may not contain vegetation and the ability for hens to exhibit natural chicken behavior."
These are "eggs from farms where chickens are able to spend a large portion of their day outdoors (weather permitting, of course)."
"This will ensure that all feed that they eat [is] free from GMOs and that if they [are] outdoors during the day that the outdoor environment is also certified organic, without pesticide or herbicide sprays." The best quality eggs from the grocery store will be labeled both pasture raised and organic.
Significance of Shell Color
"Shell color is like hair color — a genetically passed trait. Brown hens tend to lay brown eggs, and white hens tend to lay white eggs. Nutritionally, the eggs are the same. That said, most white eggs come from layer houses where the hens are caged. If you are looking for a cage-free or better egg, in most cases that egg will be brown."
Significance of Yolk Color
"Yolk color is an excellent indicator of the quality and taste of the egg and the health and nutrition of the hen that laid it. Dark yellow or orange indicates a healthy, balanced diet, and the darker the yolk, the more access the hen has had to grass and vegetation. There are feed supplements that cage-free producers can add to simulate the dark yellow color that comes from grass, but in general a pasture raised egg will have a darker yolk and fresher, richer taste than a caged, cage-free, and many 'free-range' eggs."
How to Detect Freshness
"Another indicator of egg quality and freshness is the thickness of the yolk and egg white. A fresh, high-quality egg will have dark yolks that stand up on top of the whites and thick whites. If an egg immediately flattens out when cracked into the pan, it is an indicator of an older, lower quality egg."