Cage-free. Free-range. Pasteurized. Pasture-raised. If you include eggs
as a part of your balanced diet, you may find the many labels on egg cartons
to be confusing.
"There's an array of terms egg producers can use--some refer to
the egg itself, others refer to the conditions the hens are kept in or
what they are fed," says
Cali Kent, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and the Supervisor of Clinical Dietetics at
Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. "Knowing how to decipher these carton labels helps consumers make
informed decisions in line with their culinary preferences as well as
any ethical concerns about where their food comes from."
"Several factors affect egg size," Kent says. "They include
the hen's age, weight and breed, as well as the quality of its diet
and living conditions. Stress, high temperatures and cramped spaces can
result in smaller eggs." The size of egg you choose can be based
on personal preference, cost, availability or if you have a recipe that
calls for a certain size of egg. Here are common egg sizes and their corresponding
Small: 18 oz.
Medium: 21 oz.
Large: 24 oz.
X-Large: 27 oz.
Jumbo: 30 oz.
"The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a three-level grading scale
for eggs, based on an examination of the egg's interior and exterior,"
Kent says. "For instance, with the highest grade, AA, the egg white
should be firm and thick, the yolk without blemish and the shell clean
and without cracks." Right underneath that is grade A--the standards
are the same as AA, but with slight differences, such as a thinner egg
white. Eggs with the lowest grade, Grade B, usually have spots in the
yolk, the thinnest whites and flawed shells, but are still edible.
As more and more people have become invested in where their food comes
from, these designations are meant to guide their buying decisions:
Conventional/standard: This means hens are housed in small cages with no time spent outside,
and feed is given on a regular schedule.
Enriched colony: "This system has been growing in use as what some deem a more humane
alternative to traditional egg farms," Kent says. "Instead of
conventional cages that don't allow chickens room to move, enriched
colony cages are spacious enough for hens to scratch, nest and perch.
However, the hens don't go outside."
Cage-free: "The next stage up from conventional and enriched colony, cage-free
means the chickens roam throughout the barn, with continual access to
food and water, but they stay indoors," Kent says.
Free-range: "These chickens can go outside when they want, and there may be
some more space per hen indoors," Kent says. "Because the hens
spend time outdoors they can forage for food, such as plants or worms,
to supplement their feed."
Pasture-raised: This is a lot like it sounds--hens roam outside on specially maintained
land and can eat a variety of plants, grasses and insects in addition
to chicken feed. "In a way, it's the opposite of free-range,
where hens can go outside at will--pasture-raised birds spend most of
their time outdoors and go inside when needed, such as at nighttime,"
"There are terms that serve more of a marketing purpose than anything,"
Kent says. "Take 'all-natural'--all eggs are considered natural.
'Farm fresh' is another label that doesn't mean anything in
particular. Also, don't be concerned if a carton says its eggs are
hormone or antibiotic free. It's illegal to give hormones to egg-laying
hens and antibiotics are only used on sick hens, and those hens usually
don't produce eggs."
However, there are some labels to take note of. "Pasteurized'
eggs have been heated to destroy bacteria," Kent says. "If a
carton is labeled 'organic,' those eggs meet the USDA certified
organic standards. 'Vegetarian fed' usually means the hens have
eaten all-grain feed with no animal byproducts, and omega-3 enriched eggs
are from hens that were given feed that included flax, marine algae, fish
oils, and other ingredients to boost the level of omega-3 fatty acid
in their eggs.”
Some cartons have labels noting the producers' humane methods. Among
them: Certified Humane Raised & Handled, American Humane Certified
and United Egg Producers Certified. "These are issued by different
organizations with detailed standards for the care and feeding of hens,"
Kent says. For more information on the organizations and their guidelines, click
Did You Know?
Brown eggs aren't the result of a hen's feed or the condition of
its barn--they're produced by hens with red earlobes and white shell
eggs are laid by hens with white lobes, with some exceptions based on
breed. There's no difference in quality based on the color of the eggshell.