Eggs have fallen in an out of favor in the diet and nutrition world over the years, but most of that conversation has centered around things like cholesterol, protein, and fat. But there’s more to egg quality than the nutrition label. The way that chickens were raised and eggs were treated varies greatly from carton to carton, and these factors can have an impact on your health. In this guide, we break down how to choose the healthiest eggs and decipher all the terminology on egg cartons, from pasture-raised eggs to cage-free to AA and more.
Read on to learn what we found in our research, plus some insider insights from eggs-pert (sorry, couldn’t help ourselves) Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group.
Choosing the Healthiest Eggs: Factors to Consider
We’re not going to go into a discussion of whether eggs in general are good or bad for you — this has been a hotly debated topic over the decades, with eggs on the “bad food” list for years because they were thought to be connected to high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. More recent research has discounted this belief, and the general consensus today is that eggs do more good than harm (though one recent study did raise the question once more when it found a link between egg consumption and heart disease). Either way, we’re not going to come down on one side of the aisle or another here. What we’re talking about now is, if you’re going to be eating eggs, which are the healthiest?
All eggs might have a similar nutritional profile when it comes to basic things like calories, fat, and protein, but beyond that, they can differ wildly in their health impact. That’s because not all eggs are created equal: similar to how a fetus is affected by the health and diet of its mother during pregnancy, the health and diet of a hen very much affects the quality of her eggs. Which makes it pretty obvious that well-fed, antibiotic-free chickens will produce the healthiest eggs.
However, figuring out which carton in the grocery store comes from hens who were fed and treated well can be difficult. Fortunately, egg cartons come with lots of different labels that give you insight into the treatment of the hens; unfortunately, some of those labels can be confusing.
In general, the labels on the cartons give you information about various things related to the chickens and the eggs in question. They tell you about:
- The space and environment in which the hens live
- The quality of the egg itself (considering factors like shell strength and consistency of whites and yolk)
- What the hens were fed
- Whether or not the hens were given antibiotics
Size is pretty straightforward, with terms like “Small,” “Medium,” “Large,” “Extra Large,” and “Jumbo” indicating how big the eggs are, so we won’t go into that here (except to say that apparently the smallest egg size is classified as “Pee Wee.” How cute is that??). Let’s take the rest of these areas one by one.
Where Hens Live: Caged, Cage-Free, Free-Range, and Pasture-Raised Eggs
All of these terms — caged eggs, cage-free eggs, free-range eggs, and pasture-raised eggs— 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 an 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 not very healthy, 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 be quite small or not have enough grass. This term is at least regulated by the USDA, which is helpful.
Pasture-Raised Eggs: Pasture-raised eggs are the healthiest eggs, no question. Pasture-raised means that 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. Eggs are graded based on their quality and appearance, taking into account the shell, the white, and the yolk. The USDA has three grades, which are, from worst to best: B, A, and AA. Grade B eggs have thin whites and wide yolks and their shells may show slight stains; Grade A eggs have reasonably firm whites and round yolks; and grade AA eggs have thick, firm whites and high, round yolks. Both Grade A and Grade AA eggs have clean, unbroken shells.
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, so it’s pretty meaningless.
- 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 more guidance than the terms above 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 Enriched: This healthy fat is good, so this label is a good thing, right? Not so fast. Omega-3’s aren’t found naturally in a hen’s diet, 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 farmers market is also a great place to buy eggs. Those cartons may not have the labels we mentioned here, but you can talk directly with the farmer about how the hens were raised and what they were fed. Plus, farmers market eggs spend less time in transit (since they all come from local farms, rather than being shipped a long way to a grocery store), so they lose fewer nutrients.
If you have a favorite egg brand and want to see how it stacks up in terms of its impact on your health and the hen’s quality of life, check out the Cornucopia Institute Organic Egg Scorecard. If your favorite eggs rank highly — great! Keep buying those eggs. If it’s low on the list, you’re armed with all the info you need to find a healthier go-to. You can also get WellBe-approved egg recommendations in the WellBe Nontoxic Products List database, along with other researched and vetted food products, plus 1,200+ other items across 20 different categories.
The WellBe Takeaway: How to Choose the Healthiest Eggs of All
That’s a lot of information to remember and digest (especially when you’re already trying to keep your grocery list straight!). Here’s an at-a-glance summary of why egg quality matters and how to choose the healthiest eggs:
- Not all eggs are created equal. Just like the health of a baby in utero is affected by its mother’s diet and lifestyle, the health of eggs are affected by how a hen lived and what it ate.
- Terms like caged, cage-free, free range, and pasture-raised eggs all refer to the environment in which hens live. Pasture-raised eggs are by far the best, but make sure you at least get free range.
- The grade of eggs refers to the actual quality of an egg’s shell, whites, and yolk. From best to worst, the grades are Grade AA, Grade A, and Grade B.
- Most other terms that you see on egg cartons are relatively meaningless marketing terms, but some can be confusing. Remember that healthy-sounding labels like “Vegetarian Feed” and “Omega-3 Enriched” actually indicate that the hen wasn’t fed its natural diet, and that “No Antibiotics Used” and “No Hormones” aren’t saying anything that isn’t already covered by the USDA Organic label.
- The bottom line is that the healthiest eggs are pasture-raised eggs with a Grade AA rating and a USDA Organic label as well as the Certified Humane Raised & Handled certification. These standards cover a lot of bases and indicate that you’re getting the best eggs.
Do you have a go-to egg brand? What is it? Tell us in the comments below!