The question “are eggs good for you?” is one that comes up a lot in the diet and nutrition world. And the truth is, the answer isn’t all that simple. That’s because not all eggs are created equal: similar to how a fetus is affected by the health and diet of its mother, the health and diet of a hen very much affects the quality of her eggs. There can be a huge variance in how healthy different eggs are, and it can be tough to decipher all the labels on egg cartons — should you get pasture-raised eggs? Organic eggs? Cage-free eggs? — to identify the healthiest eggs. Fortunately for you, we dug into the research and spoke with an eggs-pert (sorry, couldn’t help ourselves) to create this easy-to-follow guide on choosing the healthiest eggs for you and your family.
Read on to get our breakdown of common terms you’ll see on egg cartons, with some insider insights from Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group.
How Hens Are Treated: Caged, Cage-Free, Free-Range, and Pasture-Raised Eggs
All of these terms — caged, cage-free, free-range, and pasture-raised — refer to the way the hens were treated. More specifically, they denote the kind of environment the hens spent their lives in. And this matters a lot, because the hens’ environment affects the hens’ health, which in turn affects the health of the egg. So, an egg from a hen raised in a cage will have much less nutritional value than the egg of a hen raised out on organic field. As Kastel says, “The real reason egg quality and hen health matter for your health are for the incredible nutrient profile of the soil, the hens, and the eggs. Each day you are taking incredibly curative medicine in the form of food.”
Here’s what each of the above terms means, exactly:
Caged: Pretty simple. The hens were raised in cages. This is bad news for the hen, and for their eggs. In fact, caged hens are 7.77 times more likely to produce eggs that harbor salmonella.
Cage-Free Eggs: Sounds good, right? But this just means the hens are not in tiny cages; they’re still kept in a coop or small enclosure. When hens can’t go outside, they can’t flush toxins out of their bodies. They can’t move their muscles or eat their natural diet (worms, seeds, grass) to keep their digestion healthy. That means they’re generally unhealthier, and when they get sick, they get antibiotics — which end up in the eggs you eat.
Free-Range Eggs: This label is markedly better. It means the hens are free to roam, though they’re still kept in an enclosed area that might may be small or not have enough grass. This term is regulated by the USDA, which is helpful.
Pasture-Raised: The best, by far. It means the hens are free to roam and graze freely in a large open pasture. Humane Farm Animal Care, a nonprofit, has a pasture-raised standard to ensure that farmers allow 108 ft2 per bird. Their Certified Humane Raised & Handled Certification ensures that hens are treated humanely, and is approved by the ASPCA. This good treatment translates to the healthiest eggs by far: pasture-raised eggs have double the omega-3 fatty acids, nearly twice the vitamin E, and a 38% higher vitamin A concentration than eggs from caged hens.
Other Egg Carton Labels: Which of These Terms Indicates the Healthiest Eggs?
Now that the labels referring to the hens’ treatment is cleared up, let’s get to some of the other labels you might see on egg cartons.
First up: grade. The USDA has three grades, which are, from worst to best: B, A, and AA. Note that all U.S. eggs are required to meet at least grade B standards, so if you see a carton with the grade B label, it’s only cleared the lowest bar. These grades are useful when comparing one carton of eggs to another, but don’t tell you a lot of information. Don’t you love how the worst is still a B? Seems like pretty deceptive marketing to us!
Now onto some completely useless terms! Don’t take any of the following too seriously:
All-natural (this term isn’t regulated)
No hormones (hormones are already not permitted by the USDA, so this isn’t saying much)
Vegetarian feed (This is pretty gross actually. Hens aren’t naturally vegetarians, they eat worms and insects! So this term actually refers to the factory-chicken farm practice of feeding ground-up animal byproducts of other chickens to hens. Basically the term is really saying “these hens’ vegetarian feed may have GMO corn and soy in it, but at least it doesn’t have their uncle Frank in it!” The term should be a red flag that you might be buying from an industrial or factory farm. The term should also tell you that the eggs don’t have the full nutrient profile that they should have, or that they’ve come from sick hens. According to the Washington Post, “chickens on an unsupplemented vegetarian diet typically fall short of an essential protein-based amino acid known as methionine, and without it, they fall ill.”)
The following terms aren’t super helpful, but they can give you a bit of guidance when you’re trying to choose the healthiest eggs:
Non GMO Project Verified: This means the hens aren’t given feed with GMOs in it, but it doesn’t indicate anything about how the hens were treated or what they were fed instead.
Omega-3: This healthy fat is good, so this label is a good thing, right? Not so fast. Omega-3’s aren’t found naturally in eggs, so this means that hens are being given feed that has flaxseed or fish oil in it, meaning they’re not eating what they would eat in nature.
No antibiotics used: The USDA organic label already prohibits antibiotics, so we’re not getting a lot of new information here.
The Bottom Line: Finding the Healthiest Eggs of All
That’s a lot of information to remember and digest (when you’re already trying to keep your grocery list straight!), so here’s the simple bottom-line on finding the healthiest eggs: always look for the USDA Organic label as well as the Certified Humane Raised & Handled certification. Both of these covers a lot of bases and indicate you’re getting good eggs. The farmers market is also a great place to buy eggs — these cartons may not have the labels we mentioned here, but you can talk to the farmer about how the hens were raised. Plus, farmers market eggs spend less time in transit, so they lose fewer nutrients.
Want to see how your favorite egg brand stacks up? Check out the Cornucopia Institute Organic Egg Scorecard. If it ranks highly — great! Keep buying those eggs. And if it’s low on the list, you’re armed with all the info you need to find a healthier go-to.