Each year about this time a great amount of attention is given to eggs. In modern times this is largely due to the Easter bunny and the tradition of decorating eggs for the holiday. Historically, however, it was because spring was when hens started laying eggs in earnest and bunnies made more bunnies, therefore both bunnies and eggs were symbols of fertility and revival. And if you recall from last week's newsletter, these are the themes upon which the original Easter celebrations were based.
This focus on eggs always brings to light the confusion associated with egg labeling. Egg producers tout eggs that are cage free, free range, vegetarian fed, and even Certified Humane, all in an effort to alleviate consumers' concerns about possible contamination due to unsanitary production facilities and/or the humane treatment of the hens. Here is a quick look at the various types of eggs that are available and my recommendation on which eggs to buy.
Let's start with the good stuff. Pasture-raised eggs produced by a local farmer or even by a neighbor in her backyard are the best choice. These happy hens roam (typically within a fenced area) and are free to hunt for insects and bathe in the dirt to their hearts' content. Pasture-raised eggs taste better than factory eggs and have a higher nutrient value.
Eggs that are labeled 'vegetarian fed' come from hens that were not fed animal byproducts. (It also means they are not pasture raised because chickens are not naturally vegetarians. They love their insects.)
Organic eggs are laid by hens whose feed is certified organic. There are no hormones in eggs, whether organic or not. Having an organic certification is no indication of how the animals are treated.
The breed of the chicken determines the color of the egg. There is no nutritional or taste difference between white and brown eggs.
Eggs that are higher in health-promoting omega-3 fatty acids come from hens that are fed a diet that is high in omega-3's. Sources of omega-3's in chicken feed include flax, algae and fish oils.
'Free range' is a term defined by the US Department of Agriculture that means hens have access to the outside. This can merely be a door in the hen house that is sometimes open to a small yard. The chickens are not held in cages within the facility, but the facility is usually cramped and, since food is available only within the coop, only a small percentage of the chickens ever venture outside.
The term 'cage free' has no legal meaning, but generally means the same as 'free range', with or without the door to the outside.
The terms 'natural' or 'all natural' have no significance; they just sound good from a marketing perspective.
Eggs that have no special label tend to be the least expensive option at the grocery store. They come from large factories that have no regard for animal welfare and where producing eggs that are free of harmful bacteria is a challenge.
If animal welfare is your concern and you don't have a reliable local egg supplier, The Humane Society has approved 3 designations that you can look for in your grocery store: Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved and American Humane Certified. Read more about the requirements for these designations on their website.
You can also read more about egg labeling on the Grit website and, if you feel so inclined, see a graphic undercover video of a factory egg producer.
Whether your concern is about the humane treatment of the hens or buying the healthiest, best tasting eggs available, the answer is the same. Buy pasture raised eggs from a local producer. You might pay upwards of $6 per dozen, but at 50 cents an egg, it's still one of the cheapest sources of protein, good fats and other nutrients you can find. Just remember this simple rule of thumb: the happier the chicken, the better the egg. Bon appetit!