Understanding egg labels should be fairly straight forward but has become more difficult with the ever growing list of farm lingo to keep straight.
There’s no denying it, we live in a complicated time. Grocery shopping, something that should be simple and easy, has become a difficult mess of comparisons and decoding regulatory language.
The unfortunate truth is that many egg labels are trying to deceive you, and some are straight up lying to you about their contents. The lack of government regulations on eggs in the United States has led to a lot of confusion for the poor consumer.
Well, never fear, we’re here to help you finally decode those egg labels so you can understand exactly what you’re spending your hard earned money on.
What Do Egg Carton Labels Mean?
What it sounds like: Chickens that have lived a natural life and haven’t been fed hormones to control their production.
What it is: Exactly as above, but only because it’s illegal to give hormones to chickens in the United States, so this label is upselling a quality that literally every egg in America possesses.
What it sounds like: Super healthy chickens that are treated so well they don’t need antibiotics.
What it is: In regards to eggs, this means almost nothing. Commercial chickens that are producing eggs are rarely given antibiotics. If they do get sick, they’re more likely to be culled than to be treated with drugs. Most eggs on the market are antibiotic free, so paying more for eggs with this label is just silly.
What it sounds like: The free-range label may make you think of happy hens roaming on acres of rolling hills, free to do as they will all day long. Sometimes that’s true, but for the majority of free-range eggs, the label is a bit misleading.
What it is: This label actually means that the chickens who produced the eggs have “Access to the outdoors,” which can be loosely interpreted based on the farm. Some farms even interpret this to mean, “there is a door, and it’s open sometimes.”
The government currently does not have clear definitions or requirements for the label free range. The types of farms that sell free range eggs can vary wildly. Some chicken farms that sell free range eggs have a small outdoor fenced run that is way to small to even fit the thousands of chickens that live inside the chicken shed. While some farms truly do have many acres of rolling hills green hills for their chickens to wander. You’ll probably have to do some research to find those farms. More on this at the end of the article.
What it sounds like: Chickens that have been liberated from a life in a cage and now are free to wander around and do chicken things to their heart’s content.
What it is: Cage free literally just means that the chicken is not sitting in a wire cage for its entire life. It does not mean that the chicken is wandering free on a beautiful green acreage.
Usually it looks more like the photo below, where thousands upon thousands of chickens are crammed into a chicken shed. Each bird has about one square foot of space to themselves. These chicken sheds are overcrowded and usually filthy, making the chickens stressed, which leads to pecking, fighting, and death. This is not a happy or healthy life for a chicken.
Photo Source: Modern Farmer
What it sounds like: Chickens eating a cornucopia of glorious fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. (Because there are over 100 things chickens can eat.)
What it is: This means that the chicken who laid the egg was fed only a plant-based diet, which usually consists mostly of corn.
Chickens are naturally omnivorous creatures, so eating a vegetarian diet is not only not natural for them, it’s not healthy for them either.
Chickens need a lot of protein to not only produce eggs but keep their body functioning properly as well. Hens that are fed a vegetarian diet (corn) are not healthy and certainly not living their best life.
Vegetarian-Fed and Free-Range
What it sounds like: The most pampered chickens in the entire world, being fed a careful diet of only the best foods and having the freedom to wander where they will.
What it is: This one is completely impossible. As we learned in the last point, chickens are natural omnivores. If they’re truly free ranging, they’ll find bugs and small critters like mice and frogs, and they absolutely will eat them. So there’s no such thing as a vegetarian fed free range chicken.
All Natural / Farm Fresh Eggs
What it sounds like: The most high quality, and most recently laid egg you could possibly buy. And that’s what farm fresh eggs should be.
What it actually is: In regards to eggs, both of these terms mean nothing. Truly. There is no legal definition for a label that says natural or farm fresh, so putting it on a carton of eggs doesn’t mean squat. It’s merely a marketing strategy meant to paint a nice picture in your head.
Most of the eggs you buy in the average grocery store were laid weeks ago. They’re far from farm fresh, even if the label says they are.
What it sounds like: Eggs that come from chickens who ate organic food and were not treated with chemicals of any sort.
What it is: This one surprisingly is pretty much what it sounds like. The term Organic on an egg carton is one of the only terms that is actually regulated by the government. The USDA states that organic eggs must come from “uncaged hens that are free to roam in their houses and have access to the outdoors. The hens are fed an organic diet of feed produced without conventional pesticides or fertilizers.” (source).
Organic eggs are likely the best eggs you’ll find in the supermarket, although they also tend to be the most pricey.
So Where in the World Do You Get Good Eggs?
Now that you know a little more about understanding egg labels, your most likely take away from this article is that you can’t trust what you read on an egg carton. The words are meant to put a nice picture in your head, but the reality doesn’t quite match up.
If you want to buy truly free-range eggs from chickens that are living their best life, your best option is to get to know your farmers. If you live in the city, check out local farm markets or try to connect with urban chicken keepers. A lot of the time you can actually visit these farms and see with your own eyes that the chickens are living their best lives.
If you live in the country, take an ambling drive down any country road and you’ll be sure to drive past several “Eggs for Sale” signs. Chicken keepers tend to be friendly folks and tend to want to talk about their chickens. Stop by and strike up a conversation. If you can befriend these chicken keepers and get to know their story, you’ll be able to trust them to supply you with high quality eggs from happy chickens.
For further reading and videos about modern day chicken farms, check out this article on Modern Farmer. Being an informed consumer means you have the ability to vote with your wallet and only support people who are raising happy, healthy hens.