12 Clues To Help Decode Egg Carton Labels – And Get The Good Stuff!

An egg is an egg is an egg – or is it? Not that long ago, buying a dozen eggs was a pretty simple affair. You went to the store, opened the lid to check for any breakage, paid for the carton and were on your way. Fast forward a few decades and eggs have gotten, well, a bit complicated – eggs in all sorts of grades, categories and colors, with egg cartons featuring labels so elaborate, even a food scientist might need a moment to figure out exactly which ones to buy.

But buy them you should! Eggs are great sources of protein, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, choline, biotin, folate, iodine, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and selenium. And the yokes contain loads of nutritional musts like Omega 3 fats, vitamins A/D/K/E, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, iron, and carotenoids.

Eggs are also relatively inexpensive, endlessly versatile and a very portable protein that will help you power through your day. There’s a lot to love but, patients often ask, “Is it OK to eat the whole egg – whites and yolk?” Our answer is, absolutely! The yolk and the white of the egg have different properties which together create a powerful, protein and nutrient rich combo you might not expect to find in such a small package.

What’s more, there’s little need to redline eggs because they’re high in cholesterol. Turns out despite the mainstream demonization of them over the past few decades, eating eggs does not adversely affect cholesterol for most people, so dig in on the regular. How to source the best, healthiest possible? Here are a few pointers to keep in mind next time you’re stocking up:

Find out where your eggs are really coming from.

When buying eggs, organic is a good default, but be scrupulous about the source – it’s far too easy to be fooled by logo illustrations of happy, pastoral chickens and opaque marketing phrases on the carton. To steer your purchases in the healthiest direction possible, follow the advice of The Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit, food and farm policy watchdog group focused on working to uphold the integrity of organic, local, and other forms of alternative agriculture. An honorable pursuit if ever there was one.

For a deep dive, check out their eye-opening report Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture, and their Organic Egg Scorecard for the quick, in-a-nutshell lowdown on the name-brand and private-label organic egg brands to buy and the ones to avoid – and yes, some of the names may surprise you..

Don’t believe everything you read.

Know that on their own, the terms “cage free,” “free range,” and “pasture raised” stamped on the eggs doesn’t necessarily mean the hens were treated ethically, fed a healthy diet or raised in low-stress, non-factory farm conditions. Though the label may say “pastured,” factory farms, both conventional and organic, can still house thousands of birds (think upwards of 15,000 or 35,000 or more) in tiny spaces, all confined within a single building – a stressful life for any animal, that results in a less nutritious product, so buyer beware.

Think small – and pastured – for big nutritional gains.

Rather than buying from a big name producer, a better bet is to buy pastured-raised eggs from local producers and farmers’ markets whenever possible. Research the producers and buy from those who go above and beyond to raise healthy animals. Look for smaller scale or local farmers who are raising smaller flocks, the opposite of industrial scale. And for producers who make the effort to house their birds in portable henhouses that are moved to fresh pasture, sometimes multiple times a day.

Birds who have sufficient space and are free to roam outdoors and engage in normal (stress-blunting) behaviors, like nesting, stretching their wings, walking, running, foraging and eating grasses and bugs, at will, tend to get sick less often and are going to produce healthier, more nutritious eggs. And the proof is in the pudding, or in this case the yolk: chickens that are able to peck in a pasture produce eggs with yolks that will be a beautiful rich vibrant yellow or orange color – a far cry from the pale, sickly yellow of a factory farmed egg.

One highly-rated,  pasture-raised brand that’s easy to find in stores is Vital Farms. Or, if you’d like your eggs on the more local side, get yours through a your neighborhood co-op, or consider joining a CSA (community-supported agriculture) project. To find one near you, check out Local Harvest.

Learn to spot the health-washing phrases that are just marketing jargon.

As we said earlier, egg carton labels are anything but intelligible, and that’s just fine with Big Food. In fact, the food business relies on opaque lingo that’s been artfully selected to give foods a “health halo”—an identity that projects an aura of wellness without the reality. When it comes to eggs, there are a truckload of virtually meaningless phrases that are stamped on millions of egg cartons, and do a fantastic job of confusing consumers. Among the offenders:

1. The word “natural” and “all natural”– all it means is that only that no additives or processing occurred; it does not mean your eggs are healthy or especially good for you.

2. The phrase “farm fresh” – also is also a meaningless phrase, particularly as those giant factory farms are farms, too, after all – and fresh off the factory farm is hardly a plus.

3. The phrase “no added hormones” – sounds like a good idea but as hormone use in egg-laying hens is prohibited by the FDA, there’s nothing to see here either.

4. The phrase ‘vegetarian feed’ – in theory it sounds promising, but in practice, the overwhelming majority of ‘vegetarian’ feed – though it is free of animal by-products – it’s still pretty crappy stuff, full of genetically modified corn, soy, and other grains that are anything but healthy for the hens, their eggs or us!

5. The phrase “cage free” – we like to think the hens are wandering around outside living their best life, but alas, that’s rarely the case. Cage-free doesn’t mean cruelty-free either. All it means is that the birds can move around a bit more than caged, but still spend most of their lives indoors, packed in close quarters with thousands of other birds.

6. The phrase “free-range” – this designation means the birds can go outside and they’re not caged, so there are some upsides here, but there’s no regulation on how much outdoor space the birds access to, the amount of time outdoors or how frequently – so conditions for the hens can still lean towards miserable.

7. The designation “United Egg Producers Certified.” – though it looks like a big deal but in reality, doesn’t mean much. It’s a voluntary program with requirements so low and so little verification, this particular stamp of approval is virtually worthless.

8. The perceived bonus of “omega-3 fatty acids” – now this sounds good too, but as eggs already have omega-3s baked in, the packaging is simply calling attention to something that’s already there – so no need to pay more or think you’re getting a more nutritious egg. In fact, hen’s been fed omega-3 enriched feed, it’s a clue that the animal has spent virtually all of its life indoors, and possibly even caged. In other words, steer clear.

Look for the words that really count – preferably in combination.

So with all these empty phrases kicking around the business of eggs, what are the good words to look for? If you’re buying yours from a more traditional supermarket – and not a CSA or farmers’ market – then at minimum, look for a combination of the Big Three: USDA Certified Organic +  Certified Humane + Animal Welfare Approved. When all three appear on the same carton, you’ll be getting a reasonably healthy egg product from an animal that’s been raised and treated on the whole, pretty well.

Though the USDA Organic seal is not a guarantee on unfettered outdoor access for the birds, it does ensure that the birds won’t have been caged, and will have been raised on an organic, vegetarian diet. The Certified Humane designation adds another positive layer to the package, as it too guarantees the hen hasn’t been caged, and has had some roaming space, though not necessarily outside. Add to that the Animal Welfare Approved label to ensure that the hen logged some outdoor time and was not subjected to cruel practices like beak trimming – certainly a worthwhile stamp to look for!

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