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The Difference Between Pastured, Organic, and Free Range Eggs

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What exactly are free-range, cage-free, organic, or pastured eggs, and how are they different?

What exactly are free-range, cage-free, organic, or pastured eggs, and how are they different?

Eggs and Their Different Labels

With so many different labels of eggs, such as “organic” and “free range,” it can get a bit confusing as to which ones taste better and which ones are healthier. And then there are the ones without any marketing claim aside from the big stamp “jumbo eggs.”

This article will help you understand the different labels in the supermarket.

Growing up, I thought eggs were simply ... eggs. My first introduction to fresh, organic, pastured eggs was from my fiancé’s aunt. I picked her up from the bus station and noticed her gripping a box firmly but carefully.

Of course, I was curious as to what type of goodies she brought from Vegas, her hometown. “They’re fresh eggs! My chickens had fresh eggs yesterday!” I thought, You have chickens? Like, pet chickens?! And the eggs ... they came from your chickens?!

When we got home, we immediately fried a few and scrambled the rest. Oh my goodness ... let me tell you, I have been missing out. Of course, they tasted like eggs, but with a special “oomph.” That night, I counted eggs instead of sheep before falling asleep.

Now, I raise my own chickens for eggs. Pastured eggs are richer in color and flavor, with a deep orange yolk. They are the best choice and will give you more bang for your buck. They have more nutrients than conventional eggs! They may be different in size and color, but the one thing that remains consistent is a pleasant surprise that wakes up my taste buds.

Can you tell which yolk has more nutrients? The egg on the top is a conventional egg. The one on the bottom is a pastured egg.

Can you tell which yolk has more nutrients? The egg on the top is a conventional egg. The one on the bottom is a pastured egg.

So What's the Difference?

What Are Conventional Eggs?

Chicken farming is all about profits. Don’t be fooled by clever marketing phrases on the cartons. A box of eggs with a picture of a pretty chicken frolicking on a green grassy field with the wording “fresh eggs” is tricky and deceiving. It translates to “Miserable chickens: buy these eggs so we can make more money while you eat a low-nutrient egg.”

Most chickens are raised in factories, where they are crowded together in a very confined area, trampling on each other. Some are kept in individual cages with no room to move. It might have never crossed your mind, but this is a potential breeding condition for bacteria and disease.

If any chickens die, well, by golly, there goes the farmer’s profit. So what do they do to prevent that from happening? They stuff antibiotics into their systems, which means some of these antibiotics can end up in your eggs. Hormones can also be given to boost egg production. It makes sense from a profit perspective since more laid eggs equal more profit, but it’s not good for either the chicken or the egg.

What Are “Pastured” Eggs?

Pastured eggs are laid by chickens that are raised on the green pasture, with access to sun, bugs, space, and fresh air. The chickens eat a natural omnivorous diet full of bugs, the way Mother Nature wanted them to do.

What Does “Cage-Free” Mean?

Cage-free systems are better than conventional ones but still not the best because, instead of in cages, chickens are kept in crowded hen houses. This means they are trampling around in their own feces all day. They have no room to move or even spread their wings, no fresh air, and no sunlight.

What About “Free Range”?

You might think “free range” means free, but think again. You might visualize a beautiful landscape of hens wandering on a bed of green grass under the sun, but, in fact, “free range” is not much different from “cage-free,” with the exception of a tiny door or ramp that leads to another tiny area. They must have “access” to the outdoors to be labeled free range, but with thousands of chickens confined in one area, do you think they can actually use that door?

“Organic” Eggs?

Organically raised chickens must be fed food that is free of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones, and antibiotics. That’s good news, right? Not necessarily. These hens still may not have access to everything they’d eat if they were in a pasture. However, they are your next best choice if you don’t have access to pastured eggs.

“Vegetarian” Eggs?

These eggs come from chickens that eat a vegetarian diet (no meat, insects, or fish by-products). This term may imply that the chickens are eating a healthier diet when, in fact, they are eating corn, soybeans, and grain. Plus, chickens are natural omnivores, so vegetarianism is not necessarily best for them.

“Omega-3-Enhanced” Eggs?

These chickens are fed a diet of flaxseed and/or fish oils, so their eggs have almost 12 times more omega-3 fatty acids than regular eggs. Legitimate producers would state how much docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) their eggs have because most people want to enrich their diets with DHA and EPA instead of ALA since those offer more health benefits for the brain, eye, and heart health. Most omega-3-enhanced eggs have more ALA, which our bodies don’t process quite as well.

So Which Eggs Are the Best, Healthiest You Can Buy?

In conclusion, pastured chickens that are free to run around and eat organic grass, bugs, and greens just lay a much superior egg. No egg produced in a large commercial egg factory/operation can compare. Of course, you could eat more conventional eggs to reap the same amount of nutrition, but then you are adding more calories to your diet.

Small local farmers supply fresh eggs from chickens that are raised organically in a nice environment with a large open area. You might even be lucky enough to purchase the eggs on the same day they are laid. Find a local farmer in your area that raises chickens humanely. Ask questions and learn how the chickens are raised and fed.

"Chicken Feed" Feeds You, Too!

Many of the nutrients that chickens eat find their way into the eggs you eat. That's why knowing the chickens' diet is important.

Did you know that chickens are natural omnivores and should be eating bugs, insects, and grubs? They are not vegetarians!

Chicken farmers may add soy and corn to their chickens' diet, pumping them up with GMOs (genetically modified organisms). These ingredients are much cheaper than a chicken's natural diet, but they may also affect the quality and flavor of the eggs.

The reality: This is a common chicken farming environment!

The reality: This is a common chicken farming environment!

What Is the Difference Between Pastured and Pasteurized Eggs?

Don't get confused: A few letters can make a huge difference here. "Pastured" means the hens were raised in a pasture, but "pasteurized" means the eggs have been heated to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.

Pastured Chicken Egg Nutrition

Eggs are among the best sources of protein. Egg whites contain a lot of amino acids, while yolks are rich in vitamins and minerals.

According to a study from the 2007 Mother Earth News egg testing project, conventional store-bought eggs are nutritionally inferior to pastured eggs. Compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data.

Compared to Commercial, Pastured Eggs Have:

  • 1⁄3 less cholesterol
  • 1⁄4 less saturated fat
  • 2⁄3 more vitamin A
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • 3 times more vitamin E
  • 7 times more beta carotene
  • 4–6 times more vitamin D
Pastured chickens that are free to run around and eat organic grass, bugs, and greens lay the best eggs.

Pastured chickens that are free to run around and eat organic grass, bugs, and greens lay the best eggs.

Questions About Eggs

What are grass-fed eggs?

Some people refer to pastured eggs as "grass-fed," but this term is not particularly useful since eggs don't eat, and pastured chickens eat much more than grass.

Which eggs taste the best?

Fresh eggs always taste best, especially if they are from happy, pastured hens.

Which eggs are the healthiest?

Studies show that pastured eggs have the least cholesterol and saturated fat and the most vitamins and fatty acids, which makes pastured eggs the healthiest choice.

Which are better: organic or pasture-raised eggs?

Pastured eggs are not necessarily organic—remember, whether an egg is organic depends on whether the hen ate organic. If given a choice between these two types of eggs, I'd opt for pasture-raised because those hens are given the most freedom to roam and peck.

Do omega-3 eggs taste fishy?

Whether it comes from flaxseed or fish, omega-3 fats tend to have a somewhat fishy smell and flavor that some people notice.

Do dark yellow-orange yolks indicate healthier eggs?

Many people believe that you can tell the nutritional content of an egg just by looking at the color of the yolk, but unfortunately, it's not that easy. The yolk's color depends mostly on the pigment of the foods the chicken eats. If hens have access to foods with yellow and orange carotenoids and pigments (xanthophylls), their eggs will have darker yolks.

And, since there is a preference for darker yolks, egg producers often add things to their feed to artificially produce darker yolks. So, although it may be true that colorless diets are also less nutritious, the darkness of a yolk does not necessarily indicate a healthier egg.

Do eggs with brown shells taste different from eggs with white shells?

The egg's color depends upon the breed of the chicken. There is no consistent or demonstrable difference, taste-wise or health-wise, between a brown and a white egg.

These are my free range chickens...they produce smaller, but more flavorful and nutritious eggs every day!

These are my free range chickens...they produce smaller, but more flavorful and nutritious eggs every day!

How to Test to See if an Egg Is Fresh

  1. Put an uncooked egg in a bowl of cold water. If it sinks to the bottom and lies on its side, it’s fresh. If it stands up, it’s about 1–2 weeks old. If it floats, it’s an old egg.
  2. Hardboil it. Storing eggs for a long time will cause evaporation of the whites, which is why the shell of an old egg is easier to peel off. Fresh eggs will be harder to peel because the whites are fuller and pressed harder against the shell.

© 2012 Kim Lam