We love our eggs every which way: poached, hard-boiled, even baked in an avocado. But picking out a carton at the grocery store has become more confusing in recent years. It's no longer just a decision between white or brown and large or extra large. Now we can choose among pasture-raised, cage-free, eggs raised with vegetarian or organic feed, and more—and rather than thinking about that omelette we've been craving, our mind start contemplating animal welfare.
Before you throw up your hands in despair and make a beeline for the cereal aisle, we decoded the confusing labels and found out if happy hens really lay more nutritious eggs to help you select the best dozen for your next egg-stravaganza. (We couldn't help ourselves!)
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Egg cartons are covered with buzzwords like "antibiotic free" and "free roaming hens," but the USDA regulates only a handful of these terms. Here are the differentiating aspects for the six they do define:
- Cage-free: Chickens can wander freely in an enclosed space.
- Free-range: Hens are given shelter and access to the outdoors.
- Pasture-raised: Chickens are given shelter and have access to the outdoors for a substantial part of their lives.
- Organic: Eggs come from free-range chickens that were not given antibiotics or growth hormones. (It's worth noting that it's illegal to give chickens growth hormones and rare to give laying hens antibiotics.)
- Natural: Eggs are minimally processed and free of artificial ingredients.
- Grass-fed: Hens are fed grass and other food typically found in the pasture, except grains.
The trouble with these definitions is they are purposely vague. They don't define, for example, how much time free-range chickens get to spend outdoors versus their pasture-raised counterparts. To better understand where your eggs come from, you should go directly to the source, says Aurora Porter, the national sales manager at Vital Farms. All egg cartons have the name and address of the farm where they were produced. Some, like Vital Farms, even list a number to call if you have questions about how the hens are raised and treated.
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