Eggs got a bad rap during the low fat, low cholesterol craze of the 1990s and although they’ve made it off the naughty list, confusion still abounds. It doesn’t help that many guidelines contain old “information” that was never more than pseudoscience to begin with. You may have questions, as I did, like…Should I eat the whole egg or just the egg white? Are brown eggs better than white eggs? What do all of these new labels on egg cartons mean?
Egg Yolk vs. Egg White
Restaurant menus sometimes list egg white only omelets in their “healthy fare” section, so if the egg whites are healthy, then the yolks must be unhealthy, right? The short answer is no. The long answer is that yolks were vilified in the 90s because they contain cholesterol and fat and were therefore “unhealthy.” However we now know that dietary cholesterol and fat do not affect blood cholesterol levels, and furthermore, blood cholesterol levels aren’t related to heart disease in most people (which is another topic for another day). The egg white contains protein and some B vitamins while the yolk is the nutritional powerhouse of the egg packed with essential fatty acids, fat-soluble vitamins, and antioxidants. Plus adding yolks back to those egg white omelets makes them even more delicious.
Brown vs. White
What is it about brown eggs that makes them seem healthier? I’ve always thought that to be true even though I had absolutely nothing to base it on. It turns out, the egg shell color is not related to the nutritional value of the egg. Chickens with white feathers lay white eggs and chickens with dark feathers lay brown eggs. Brown eggs often cost a little more because the dark feathered chickens are bigger birds and eat more food than the white feathered chickens which makes them a little more expensive to raise.
The choice of eggs is not as simple as medium or large anymore. As the options increase, so does the confusion. So what do all of the terms on the egg cartons mean? Eggs without a label indicating how the chickens were raised are likely from factory chickens which are usually kept indoors in a cage with a footprint smaller than a piece of letter-sized paper. They live about 2 years without ever leaving the cage and are fed a mixture of grain, soy, and mystery meat. These are the cheapest eggs and cost between 1 and 2 dollars a dozen in most places. The next step up is cage free. These chickens are kept indoors, but not in a cage. They can walk around, but there is no guarantee they are eating anything different than caged birds. A dozen cage free eggs costs somewhere around $3.00. Free range is a step above cage free and means the chickens can go outside. However there are no laws that govern how long they are outside, or what “outside” consists of, which means it could be a concrete slab. There is also a “weather permitting” caveat which means the birds could be indoors most of the year. Free-range eggs are usually between 3 and 4 dollars a dozen.
Certified humane is a classification that indicates the farm has met a specific set of standards. For indoor birds, they must be cage free, have at least 1.5 square feet of space, have access to dust-bathing material, perches, nest boxes, and ammonia free air to breathe. Free range and certified humane indicates an outdoor area covered in live vegetation with shelter that has sufficient exit areas so they can access the outdoors easily. The minimum space required is 2.5 acres for every thousand chickens. These aren’t that much more expensive than those not certified humane and are around $4.00 per dozen. They won’t be labeled vegetarian fed because the birds eat insects that are outdoors as well as grasses.
Pastured or pasture-raised eggs come from chickens that are free to roam fields and feed on live vegetation and insects. There are no federal regulations governing the use of this term, but each farm usually provides their own standards and can be found on their websites. Vital Farms and The Happy Egg Co state on their sites that they open the barn doors in the morning and the birds have pasture access all day long. Pastured eggs can cost up to $8.00 a dozen but can be as cheap as $4.50. Walmart carries eggs from the Happy Egg Co for $5.00/dozen.
Where does organic fit into this tiered system of hen raising practices? The term organic can be applied as an adjunct to several of the above classifications and means the birds have outdoor access, eat only organic feed, and have not been given any hormones or antibiotics. It should be noted however, that it is illegal to administer hormones to any chickens in the United States and antibiotics are rarely used in chickens farmed for eggs. Organic eggs are usually about $1.00 more per dozen than their non-organic counterpart.
And finally, one more question needs to be answered. Is the nutritional value of the egg altered at all by the way the chicken is raised and fed? A study in 2010 showed that while the protein content is the same for an egg from a factory chicken or a pasture raised chicken, the pastured eggs had more than twice the amount of Vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids, both of which are powerful antioxidants. Salmonella rates are also lower in cage free, free range, or pastured eggs because the chickens live in a more sanitary environment.
So the next time you are approaching the egg case at the store and feel anxiety creeping in, remember that you are now equipped to make an informed decision on what combination of nutritional value, cost, and humane treatment of chickens fits your needs best. Happy shopping!