Q: I go to buy eggs at the supermarket and am overwhelmed by the terms on labels—antibiotic-free, natural, organic, free-range. Which should I choose?
A: First of all, I totally feel your pain. Figuring out how to buy eggs these days practically requires a PhD.
Which is a bummer because they’re so great for your health, providing protein and important vitamins like vitamin D and E, and choline, a nutrient that’s great for your brain and is hard to get elsewhere.
But don’t worry: I’m not going to leave you feeling totally scrambled by confusing terms and seals that make tons of promises. Here’s what you need to know.
How to Buy Eggs
The Bottom Line
My quick-and-dirty advice is this: in the most ideal scenario, you’d buy your eggs straight from a local farmer whom you’ve verified is organic (either certified or simply doesn’t use pesticides on his or her land) and raises chickens outside, rotating them to graze on pasture, with indoor access when they need it. These happy chickens will lay the most nutritious eggs. (If you’ve ever seen the deep, orangey yolks, you get it.)
Of course, you may not have access to these. At the supermarket, your best bet is eggs that are stamped with both the USDA Organic and Animal Welfare Approved seals (more on those, below).
Or, consult this exhaustive guide from the Cornucopia Institute and choose the brand your store carries that has the highest rating (they’ve done the homework for you).
If you want to know more about what all of the terms on the cartons really mean, keep reading to become totally egg savvy.
USDA Organic seal
The organic seal is the only seriously reliable, regulated indicator of a few things: the hens that laid your eggs were only eating feed that was produced without the use of pesticides or herbicides and was GMO-free. (If GMOs are your main concern, you can also look for the Non-GMO Approved seal, which only covers genetic modification, not pesticide/herbicide use.) However, under the current National Organic Program rules, the requirement for outdoor access is vague, meaning USDA Organic far from guarantees the chickens are roaming around outside. (More stringent requirements for outdoor access have been proposed, but a final ruling is still pending.)
Animal Welfare Approved seal
This seal is essentially proof that the chickens are being raised outside, pecking away in a pasture and being well-taken care of. That’s good news for two reasons: you can rest assured the animals are happy, and eggs from chickens foraging on pasture have been shown to be more nutritious, containing more omega-3s and vitamin E.
Potentially Helpful (but Less Regulated) Terms
Antibiotic-Free/Raised Without Antibiotics/No Antibiotics Added
Antibiotics in our food system are a major issue for both human and environmental health. You don’t want them in your chicken or your eggs. Technically, the USDA does require that producers who use this term on egg cartons submit documentation showing the chickens were raised without antibiotics. However, it’s not a developed checks and balances system like an organic certification.
These three apply to how the chickens are housed and are especially important if you’re concerned about animal welfare. None are routinely monitored/checked.
The USDA says if a company uses this term, the chickens can’t be in “cages,” but they can still be kept completely inside, piled on top of each other in cramped hen houses.
The USDA says the chickens have been “allowed access to the outside.” There are no specifications on what that means, so it could mean there’s a tiny hole they can stick their body partially out of, or it could mean they actually have access to an outdoor pen. Like the difference between your friend who says she has “outdoor space” in New York City to mean she can hang her legs off a fire escape as opposed to the friend who’s got two acres of land upstate.
This term is supposed to mean the chickens are raised in an open pasture, foraging grasses and insects, with access to a space to go inside if they want it (often a trailer) and a system for rotating them onto new areas. But again, it’s unregulated, so how producers use it varies.
If a carton makes any of these claims, it doesn’t mean the eggs are worse for you, it just doesn’t mean…anything.
This is the product of beef-industry confusion. Egg-laying chickens are never allowed to be given hormones in the US.
What’s more natural than an egg? This term isn’t regulated and even if the USDA did enforce regulations, it’s unlikely artificial flavors would be added to chickens.
If you wanted the chicken to be a vegetarian…why are you eating eggs, again? Chickens are natural omnivores; they’re meant to forage for insects. The thinking behind this term may be that it’s indicating they’re not being fed animal byproducts, but it’s also unregulated, so still isn’t anything to rely on.