If you eat eggs, you will want to read this article! Cartons of eggs with words such “All Natural” or “Farm Fresh” can be misleading… Even if you think your eggs are healthy, the majority of eggs produced for consumption in the United States come from battery cage hens. The people who raise battery cage hens have very little concern over the well-being of the chickens, nor do they care how much nutrition these eggs are likely to have. Do you know where your eggs come from?
I was lucky enough recently to visit a farm where chickens and eggs were raised, being able to roam freely and in addition to eating a high quality diet, they had access to whatever bugs and grubs and greens they wanted. It makes all the difference in the quality of the produce when animals are cared for this way!
My visit to Bramble Hollow Farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia was enlightening. Anna Wills showed me around, along with her 2 children, Jack (8) and Meryn (3). Anna and her husband Brent moved to the farm in 2004 and have gradually built and expanded it since then.
As we walked to where the chickens were, Anna shared more about how the chickens were raised and fed. On her farm, the hens enjoy a mix made by former Longevity Now® Conference speaker Joel Salatin that includes things like kelp and probiotics, but what most people don’t realize is that it is really more about what the chickens can forage that affects the color of the yolk. Many chickens kept in confined areas also receive a good quality food mix, but when the hens are able to find their own insects and grubs for added protein, and can graze on grass and clover and other natural foods like legumes, they produce eggs with the deep orange rich (and more nutritious) yolks!
Eggs produced on this farm run the gamut from brown to greenish-blue to white but they all have great flavor and more concentrated nutrients. While I watched 8-year old Jack feed the chickens and 3-year old Meryn collect the eggs, Anna explained the difference between the different classifications of how eggs are produced.
If you are reading this blog, you are probably someone who invests more energy in your health and who takes care to buy higher quality foods for yourself and your family. If so, you may think that buying organic eggs is the best you can do… but there’s more! Organic eggs are really just a single step up from battery eggs.
If you see the word “organic” on a label, including eggs, you might think that the hens who laid the eggs lived in better conditions and enjoyed happier lives than their battery cage counterpoints, but even certified organic eggs can come from birds who are subject to living in inhumane factory conditions.
Most industrial egg-laying operations get by following the minimum standards required while implementing the maximum labeling benefits. They are allowed to do this by simply including a small porch area attached to a two-story building where their chickens are housed, and where only 3-5 % of the hens can actually get outside, and they can call this “outdoor access.” Industrial sized egg manufacturers who adopt this practice place smaller scale farmers at a major disadvantage in the marketplace.
Certified organic eggs come from hens that are raised on hormone-free and antibiotic-free organic feed, and have “access” to outdoor areas. The conditions which the chickens live under is verified by a third party, but it is within the law to allow millions of birds to be crowded together in one building with a tiny concrete floored porch, and some beak trimming is allowed. Is this really what you are looking for when you buy “organic”?
So What Kind of Eggs Should You Buy?
If you can’t even trust a certified organic label for eggs, which eggs can you buy? Here are some other terms used to label the various conditions under which eggs are produced and what they mean:
Cage-free: This is a loose, unregulated term describing eggs which could be from hens confined to a barn, OR from chickens with access to outdoor space. There is no specific regulation for the term cage-free and there is a big difference between these options! Cage-free egg producers are not audited by independent inspectors, unless they are also certified organic.
Many people buy cage-free eggs thinking that these hens have access to outdoor pasture, but the truth is that they usually live inside dark enclosed sheds. The chickens are free to roam around within the confined space and to stretch and spread their wings, which is a significant improvement over battery cage conditions, but they still don’t typically have free roaming access to outdoor pasture.
Free-range: Even though it sounds good, “free-range” doesn’t mean pasture-raised any more than “cage free” does. Free-range hens, you would think, should have access to the outside, but again, there is no regulation that guarantees how long they need to be outside, how much room they are given, or any other standards that would make them “free-range.”
Free-range hens can still be fed GMO feed, given antibiotics, and other animal by-products. They often live in overcrowded conditions, and they may or may not have access to more comfortable nests and perches.
Omega-3 Enhanced: Omega-3 enhanced eggs come from chickens that consume significant amounts of flax, which contains high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Most omega-3 enhanced egg laying hens in battery cages. The amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in these eggs is unregulated and can be quite variable.
Pasture-raised : Authentic free-range eggs come from hens raised on grassy pastures. These eggs are visibly more nutritious than eggs obtained from cage-free, or confined environments. Free-range producers are not audited by third parties unless the eggs are also certified organic so make sure you talk to your supplier about the eggs, but pasture-raised would be your best bet for the best eggs ever.
The color, flavor and texture of a pasture-raised egg is distinctively noticeable and caused by high amounts of Vitamin A, D, E, K2, B-12, folate, riboflavin, calcium, zinc, beta carotene, choline, and loads of omega 3 fatty acids. A pasture-raised egg is a true superfood. If you’ve never eaten an egg from a hen raised on sunshine, bugs and grass, then you are in for a treat.
Note that some eggs are labelled “pasteurized” and this means something different from pastured. Pasteurized eggs have been treated to eliminate bacteria such as salmonella so they can be eaten raw.
Before I visited the farm, I bought some organic, free-range, hormone-free eggs at my local grocery, thinking these would be healthy, but what I found was this light yellow color yolk you see on the right, contrasted with the rich deep orange yolk you get from a pastured egg (seen on the left).
If you are not sure how the eggs you buy rate, use the Organic Egg Brand Scorecard to learn more about the source of eggs available to you and to help you choose a healthier, and more humanely raised egg!
A few years ago Mother Earth News conducted an egg testing project and found that eggs produced by truly free-ranging hens were far superior to those produced by battery cage hens. They found that some of the benefits of pasture-raised eggs include:
- 7 x more betacarotene
- 3-6 x more vitamin D
- 3 x more vitamin E
- 2 x more omega-3 fatty acids
- 67% more vitamin A
The British Journal of Nutrition additionally found that pasture-raised eggs have:
- 70% more vitamin B12
- 50% more folic acid
Pastured hens are exposed to direct sunlight, which is converted to vitamin D in their bodies, and then passed on to their eggs. Eating just two of these eggs will give you from 63-126% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin D. This benefit only comes from hens that are free to graze on fresh greens, eat bugs, and get direct sunlight. 99% of the eggs sold in the grocery store do not meet this criterion.
Factory farm birds (both conventional and organic) never get to see the great outdoors, let alone get to forage for their natural diet. Instead they are fed a cheap mixture of corn, soy and/or cottonseed meals, with lots of additives, often including toxic ingredients like arsenic.
Interestingly, Anna told me that while her original motivation for raising pastured chickens was to make healthier food for her family and customers, along the way it became at least as important—if not more important—how the hens were treated and the kind of life they got to enjoy. As she learned more about what other farms were doing it became increasingly important to her to protect the life of the animals she was working with, along with all the various levels and small businesses that were part of the puzzle and supported the cycle of food along the way.
Often recommending movies like Food, Inc. or books like Folks this ain’t normal by Joel Salatin, Anna often sees people inspired to transition overnight from eating fast food to eating healthy food. Some people start because they watched a movie or read a book. Others have a food allergy or sensitivity. Whatever the reason, the important thing is to make the choice to find something better.
If you enjoy eggs or are looking for a great healthy protein source, try pasture-raised eggs. These can usually be found at your local farmers market or co-op. More and more individuals are starting to raise their own chickens also so maybe you can find them in your own neighborhood!