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So you’re in the store doing your grocery shopping and minding your own business. You head to the dairy coolers ready to grab those eggs on your list. But as you reach for the eggs, the confusion settles in. Why are there so many different kinds of eggs?
Because there aren’t just one or two different types of eggs. Depending on the size of your grocery store, the egg section can be positively intimidating. There are brown eggs and white eggs. Cage-free eggs and free-range eggs, regular, farm-fresh and organic. Which eggs are the best to buy?
What do all these labels mean? Do they mean anything at all or are they just meaningless bits of jargon designed to trick you into thinking your purchase is healthier than it is?
You’d absolutely be forgiven for your confusion. Like most food industries, it isn’t designed to be simple or easy to understand. To really understand what’s going on, you have to do a bit of research and have more than a little patience. We know it can feel easier to simply throw up your hands in frustration, grab the first carton you see and walk away.
But if you really care about the environment these chickens and eggs come from, it’s worth taking the time to learn a little bit more about it. And if you really care about what kind of food you’re putting into your body, you’ll know that it’s worth having some patience and taking the time to learn what these different labels mean.
We know how important this type of learning is. That’s why we’ve put together this comprehensive egg buying guide. In it, we’ll tackle what these various labels mean as well as what health benefits or risks come with each one, what the common pricing schemes are and how the chickens who laid the eggs were raised.
By the time you’re finished reading this, you won’t just know how to shop for eggs. You’ll know which are the healthiest eggs to buy and you’ll be ready to share this information with all of your friends and family. Ready? Let’s get started!
What Is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Grading System?
You may have heard of eggs being referred to with letter grades and wondered about the meaning of such a system. While this by no means the only way to classify eggs, or even the most commonly used one, it’s still worth learning about.
The system breaks down into three different grades:
- Grade AA: Eggs graded with AA are supposed to have firm, thick egg whites and a round, high yolk. They’re best when used for poaching or frying, but can certainly be used for any purpose.
- Grade A: These eggs are very similar to AA eggs except for their whites, which can be slightly less firm. They are also excellent for poaching and frying, but can be used for anything.
- Grade B: Grade B eggs have a flatter yolk and thinner whites. Typically, these are used for scrambled eggs as well as dry, frozen or liquid egg products.
Even though a B-graded egg sounds far inferior when compared to an AA egg, the differences between them are not very extreme. The B egg might have a few exterior marks or ridges that pull its grade down or the egg might be slightly thinner and more watery. However, this should in no way discourage you from eating B-graded eggs, as they are still perfectly safe and delicious to eat.
Anything graded below a B is considered below standard and is not put on a grocery store shelf.
What Do the Different Egg Colors Mean?
While most eggs you buy at big grocery store chains are white, you’ve probably seen brown eggs as well. But did you know that white and brown aren’t the only colors eggs come in? Eggs can also be green, blue, purple or other colors. While these aren’t going to be as bright as cartoon Easter eggs in the way that you might immediately picture, some eggs do have unmistakable blue or green tints.
What do these different colors mean? It might surprise you, but the color actually means nothing. A colored egg is no healthier or unhealthier than a white egg. There is no variance in nutritional value at all. In fact, the only reason some eggs have different colors is because of the genetics of the chicken who laid the egg. Some chickens just lay brown eggs while others lay white and still others lay purplish.
What Do the Different Labels Mean?
Let’s continue our egg exploration by taking a closer look at some of the labels you might see on egg cartons and what they actually mean:
These are your “standard” eggs. In many cases, they don’t even receive the “regular” label. However, if you come across an egg carton that has no other label on it, it’s safe to assume they fall into this category.
Regular eggs come from chickens raised in large commercial farms. In most cases, they’re kept in small cages stacked on top of one another — known as battery cages — and their beaks and wings are kept clipped.
A typical price for a dozen regular eggs is $2.99 or thereabouts. Because of the living conditions of the chickens and the enormous commercial farms they come from, these eggs can be sold at extremely affordable prices. This makes them a very attractive option for those with smaller budgets.
Despite the fact that “cage-free” sounds much more appealing than “regular,” there actually isn’t much difference between the two. “Cage-free” simply means the chickens did not live their lives confined to cages.
In most cases, the chicken still lives in very close quarters with little or no sunlight. Their beaks and wings were still clipped. However, per their distinctive label, the chickens were not technically raised in cages.
On average, these eggs are likely to cost about a dollar more than regular eggs. This means you will probably pay about $3.99 for a carton of a dozen cage-free eggs. This is still a very affordable egg price. Keep in mind, however, that the only real difference between cage-free and regular eggs is the lack of actual cages for the chickens to live in. Otherwise, the living conditions are very similar.
As was the case with cage-free eggs, free-range eggs aren’t necessarily what they sound like. The term “free-range” tends to conjure up images of chickens roaming freely in a grassy field all day. However, that’s not quite the case with most free-range eggs.
Generally, the term “free-range” guarantees that the chickens have some access to the outdoors for at least a portion of their lives. This may be any amount of time or any amount of space, which also leaves room for a great level of variety under this blanket term. In many cases, it only means a few moments or hours of sunlight in a small, enclosed yard crowded with other chickens.
You can expect to pay about the same price for free-range eggs as you would for cage-free eggs: about $3.99. While this can vary, the prices should be somewhat comparable.
This term actually doesn’t mean very much. It’s not an official designation of any kind and is essentially there to make buyers feel healthier about the eggs they’re buying. These eggs will usually be exactly the same as regular eggs, meaning they should come at an affordable price.
If you’re ever concerned about the freshness of eggs, don’t rely on a label that says “farm-fresh.” Instead, check the packaging date. This will tell you all you need to know about whether or not the eggs are fresh.
- Certified Organic
If eggs are marked “certified organic,” it means the chickens who laid the eggs were given organic feed instead of being fed on chemicals and antibiotics. While it isn’t guaranteed, these chickens are far more likely to have exposure to sunlight during their lives.
One of the primary benefits of certified organic eggs is that they limit your exposure to potentially harmful pesticides.
Because the production process of these eggs is markedly different than some of the other types we’ve looked at so far, the price will most likely be slightly more expensive than the other varieties. On average, expect a dozen certified organic eggs to cost about $4.99.
- Organic Vegetarian-Fed
Eggs with this label were produced by chickens that were fed a strict all-organic and completely vegetarian diet. While the organic feed is certainly a good thing, the vegetarian angle can be either a positive or a negative, depending on your perspective.
Like many creatures, chickens are not ideally equipped to be vegetarians. Even though they shouldn’t eat beef, pork or other common meats, their diet would naturally consist of things like bugs and worms. However, vegetarian-fed eggs can certainly have an appeal if you yourself are a vegetarian.
As with most of the egg categories we’ve looked at, the price continues to grow ever so slightly. The average dozen organic vegetarian-fed eggs will cost about $5.50.
You might see eggs cartons labeled as “kosher” or you might not. Realize, however, that this is more of a formality than anything else. Technically, almost all eggs are kosher, meaning that labeling them this way is a little redundant. The only eggs that would not be kosher are those that have been cracked, broken or that have blood spots in them.
- No Added Hormones
This is another label you might see on your grocery store shelf that can be a bit confusing. If no hormones were added to these eggs or chickens, what about other eggs? Does that mean most other eggs are chock-full of additional hormones?
As it turns out, the answer is “no.” The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actually prohibits the use of hormones in eggs. This means all eggs will technically fall into this category. Because it’s the legal standard, however, many labels don’t bother mentioning it.
This is a similar case as the “no added hormones” eggs. While antibiotics are fairly common in chicken feed, few hens are ever actually injected with antibiotics. By default, then, almost all eggs are already antibiotic-free. Some labels choose to draw extra attention to this fact while others might not mention it at all.
Even when hens are injected with antibiotics, their eggs will not be affected. Only three types of antibiotics have been approved by the FDA to treat diseases in hens and these have no effect on eggs. If anything, these drugs have the power to cure chickens of diseases and prevent them from laying infected eggs.
Omega-3-enriched eggs are those that come from chickens who have been fed with an Omega-3-rich diet. Usually, the extra Omega-3 comes from flaxseed.
While this is a fairly new label, it’s quickly becoming quite popular due to the way these eggs provide consumers with a small boost in their Omega-3s. While it’s certainly possible to get Omega-3s from food sources other than eggs, there’s also nothing wrong with getting a jump-start on your daily allotment through your morning eggs.
For a typical dozen Omega-3-enriched eggs, you’ll pay about what you’d pay for a dozen organic vegetarian-fed eggs: around $5.50.
You’ve probably seen eggs labeled as “natural” or perhaps “all-natural.” However, the egg was laid by a chicken, so technically all eggs are “natural.” Does this label mean anything else?
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the term “natural” simply means the eggs contain no artificial colors or ingredients and have only experienced minimal processing. Because this definition is so broad, almost every egg fits this description. Unless you’re eating an Easter egg, your egg is probably natural even if the label doesn’t specifically say so.
- Humanely Raised
The term “humanely raised” by itself means little. The reason for this is that humane conditions are subjective. What one person views as humane might not be the same as what another person thinks is humane. Eggs might be labeled as “humanely raised” because the chickens were not raised in cages, not necessarily because they had free access to grass and sunlight.
However, when eggs are Certified Humane, this means something more tangible and quantifiable. For eggs to be certified, the chicken farms must meet a substantial list of requirements. Chickens must live in decent conditions that are checked regularly for rodents and have proper ventilation and nice floor coverings. The hens also need to be given boxes of dirt to dust-bathe in.
Pasture-raised eggs come straight from chickens who were raised in a pasture. While there is some room for variance in this category as well, it usually means the chickens were able to roam their pasture at will. Typically, these chickens ate an organic diet as well as bugs and worms, had access to sunlight and are free from any hormones or antibiotics.
However, because these chickens are raised in such a different manner from many of the other entries on this list, the price becomes a bit higher. The average carton of a dozen pasture-raised eggs is about $8.00.
What Do the Different Types of Certification Mean?
In addition to catchy phrases like “farm-fresh,” “organic” and “hormone-free,” you might sometimes see eggs labeled with certifications from various organizations. Let’s take a moment to talk about these different organizations, what they do and what their certifications mean.
Keep in mind that these organizations and the certifications required from them are different from government regulations. Government regulations are mandated. If farmers want to sell their eggs, they are required by law to meet certain standards and comply with specific rules.
Organizations and groups, however, are something different. Farmers and egg producers voluntarily apply to be part of these groups. If they meet the standards of the particular organization, they’re allowed to put the group’s seal of approval on their egg packaging. This in turn builds greater trust in their brand and greater rapport with their customers.
In this way, even though becoming certified with an organization such as these may be more work and may cost the farmer more money, it is ultimately worth it for the greater esteem people will have for their eggs.
- United Egg Producers Certified
This organization exists to protect the interests of American egg producers. Consequently, the label “United Egg Producers Certified” signifies a few specific things.
This group supports caged hens but also has specific standards for birds considered “cage-free.” If chicken farms are to be certified as cage-free, each chicken needs at least a foot to 1.5 feet of space to roam around in by itself. In addition to this, the chicken needs free access to perching and nesting spaces of its own.
- Food Alliance Certified
Food Alliance is an organization dedicated to creating and maintaining sustainable farming practices. They work with farmers, ranchers and food processors alike so customers can be sure they’re buying food that was grown, raised or produced in a way that was environmentally conscious.
When you see eggs marked “Food Alliance Certified,” this means the chickens were raised in a sustainable way. Specifically, this breaks down into a few standards that must be met.
First, each chicken is allotted around 1.5 feet of space. Not only this, but the birds must also be given at least eight hours of sunlight and fresh air every day. The outdoor spaces they have access to should be filled with living plants to protect the area from erosion and contamination. The birds will also have ample opportunities for perching, nesting and dust bathing — and things like beak trimming and toe clipping are prohibited. Feed enhanced with antibiotics is not permitted, which keeps the birds as healthy and natural as possible.
- American Humane Certified
As the name suggests, the American Humane Association is a society formed to protect animals and ensure they’re being raised in humane conditions. As discussed before, the term “humane” is a fairly subjective one. Because of this, any egg producer wishing to become American Humane Certified must meet several conditions.
Within this umbrella of certification are several different techniques for raising birds humanely. The chickens can be raised in caged, cage-free, free-range or pasture environments. Each environment has its own requirements to be certified as humane.
Caged birds must be given almost a square foot or more of space along with places to perch and nest. Cage-free chickens need a little over a square foot of floor space and also a place to nest and perch. Free-range birds need access to a minimum of 21.8 feet of outdoor space per hen, while pasture-raised birds need at least 108.9 feet of outdoor roaming space for every bird. This pasture space must also include living vegetation.
- Certified Humane
Even though this might sound like the same thing as “American Humane Certified,” these two certifications actually come from different organizations and require the farmers and producers to meet separate standards.
The “certified humane” label comes from complying with the regulations set forth by Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC). This is an international nonprofit created for the purpose of improving the lives of farm animals around the world. Their goal is to push farmers and ranchers everywhere to develop more humane and kind practices when it comes to dealing with animals.
In terms of eggs and chickens, the system is similar to that of the American Humane Association. Chickens can be free-range, cage-free or pasture-raised, but all of these categories have certain standards they must meet.
Cage-free birds may be housed indoors, but they need ample room and opportunities to perch and nest. Free-range birds need access to outdoor spaces for at least six hours a day, in a space of at least two feet. Finally, pasture-raised chickens must have 2.5 or more acres of open pasture space for every 1,000 hens. This pasture space must also include living vegetation.
- Animal Welfare-Approved
Animal Welfare-Approved (AWA) is an organization designed to promote higher levels of environmentally sustainable farming practices as well as animal welfare. Food that has been approved by this organization must have been farmed using green farming methods and the animals must have been raised using humane practices.
AWA recommends that farmers keep their hen flocks to 500 or fewer, although farmers are allowed to have more than one flock. Every chicken must have ample indoor space complete with perching and nesting space. They also need at least four feet of outdoor space, allowing them to roam through the living vegetation and find bugs and worms to eat. The AWA also bans all beak trimming.
Which Eggs Are the Healthiest for Me to Eat?
First, it’s important to state that every egg on the grocery store shelf is safe for you to eat. There are plenty of government regulations in place to ensure every egg sold is objectively safe to eat. While there will always be the odd tainted egg out there, this is no different than any other food. A carton of eggs could meet every level of certification that exists today and still contain one tainted egg.
Even though every egg on the shelf meets all government standards and is healthy and safe, the question still stands: Which type of egg is the healthiest?
Most likely, your best bet is to look for something from a local farm. While this isn’t always the case, typically, the smaller and more local farms have a smaller operation, resulting in a more natural environment for the chickens to live and lay eggs in.
“Pasture-raised” is also a great designation to look for. Most pasture-raised chickens had plenty of opportunities to roam around a grassy area, foraging for food and soaking in sunlight and fresh air. All of these things will result in a healthier and more natural chicken that will, in turn, lay healthier and more natural eggs.
Your next-best option would be to choose Omega-3-enriched eggs. These are designed to give you an extra boost of Omega-3s, a vitamin that’s commonly missing from eggs laid by chickens in cages. Organic eggs are another good choice, as these chickens are guaranteed to have been fed organic food and are likely to have been raised in a healthier environment.
If neither locally raised nor pasture-raised are an option, your next-best bet is to grab either cage-free or free-range. These chickens won’t have had access to quite as much freedom and mobility as pasture-raised chickens, but they are also likelier to be slightly healthier than caged chickens.
The most important thing to remember when considering what eggs to buy is that every egg in the store has passed government standards and is safe to eat. Even if you’re buying regular eggs, these are still perfectly healthy and are fine to eat.
Which Egg Designations and Classifications Are Safe to Ignore?
While some of the classifications we’ve talked about are very meaningful and can tell you a lot about how the chickens who laid the eggs were raised, some really don’t mean anything at all. We’ve already mentioned them, but we’ll group them together here as well.
- Vegetarian-Fed: Chickens are naturally omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and meat. While this doesn’t mean beef or fish, they do eat things like worms and crickets. Therefore, this designation isn’t especially helpful — nor does it add any health value.
- Hormone-Free: Government regulations prohibit hormones from being artificially injected into chickens, meaning every egg is already hormone-free. Although some eggs may be labeled this way, they are just the same as every other egg.
- Antibiotic-Free: Antibiotics are so rarely used in the poultry industry that almost every egg is already antibiotic-free. Some eggs may be labeled this way, but it doesn’t do anything to set them apart from every other egg.
- Color: While this isn’t a classification, this is another thing that can be entirely ignored when selecting eggs. The color of an egg has no bearing on its nutritional value or taste. Eggs of all colors are delicious and perfectly safe to eat.
- Farm-Fresh: This is another term that makes eggs sound healthier and fresher but really has no meaning at all. These eggs are usually no fresher than any other egg on the shelf.
Which Eggs Are the Cheapest?
While there are variations and exceptions to every rule, the general rule is that the fewer certifications and labels an egg has, the more affordable it is. For example, a “regular” egg will be far more affordable than a pasture-raised egg almost every time.
The cheapest eggs are likely to be regular eggs, cage-free and free-range. You may also see hormone-free or antibiotic-free eggs for very affordable prices as well, since these labels aren’t extremely meaningful and don’t cause any extra expense.
The reason that more ethically raised and more nutritionally beneficial eggs typically cost more is simple. It is far cheaper for large farms to mass-raise hundreds and even thousands of chickens if they keep these birds in small cages and feed them sometimes less-than-ideal food. Because it’s cheaper for farms to do this, they’re able to sell the eggs for a lower price, meaning they end up on your grocery store shelf marked at a much more affordable price for you.
On the other hand, it costs much more for a farm to have enough space for their flocks of chickens to wander free. Organic food costs more and environmentally conscious farming practices are often more expensive, since many farms would need to replace all their equipment to become sustainable. The farmers that choose these methods spend more money to do so. Because of this, they must sell their eggs at a higher price to make a profit and they’ll end up with a more expensive price tag in your local supermarket.
What Are the Best Types of Eggs to Buy?
After everything we’ve looked at — egg categories, certifications, grades, colors, nutritional value and price — the final question is simple. Given all this information, what eggs are the best to buy?
Like the question, the answer is simple. It’s up to you! No one can tell you how to buy eggs because everyone is going to do it differently. No way is right and no way is wrong. There are a lot of factors to consider and everyone is going to have different priorities that lead to different conclusions.
If you’re most concerned with your own health, you might choose to buy locally produced and pasture-raised eggs. If you’re more worried about staying within a tight budget, you might choose regular eggs or perhaps cage-free eggs. If you have a passion for leaving the smallest footprint you can on the earth, you might seek out eggs that are Food Alliance Certified. If you’re concerned about animal cruelty and want to support the most humane farming practices possible, you might want to look for the Humane Certified label or pasture-raised eggs.
Choosing what eggs to buy is a personal decision that you should make yourself or one that you should share with your family and anyone else you live and share food with. All eggs are perfectly safe to eat, will provide you with nutritional value and are very tasty. Anything beyond this is up to you.
By providing you with these facts, we hope we have given you the tools to make your own informed decisions about the kind of eggs you want to buy and eat. You shouldn’t feel pressured to buy any one type of egg. Rather, should feel empowered to make your own decision.
So next time you go grocery shopping and are feeling overwhelmed by all the different varieties of eggs available, we hope you’ll feel a little more knowledgeable. We hope you’ll be able to make an educated decision that leaves you feeling happy and healthy.
Want to Learn More About Eggs?
Are you interested in learning more about the fascinating world of eggs? Do you want to learn more about where eggs come from, how to use them, buy them and so much more? If so, Sauder’s Eggs is here for you.
We’re a family-owned egg business with over 75 years of experience under our belt. We have processing plants and farms throughout Pennsylvania and take pride in selling our delicious and top-quality eggs to families and individuals across the state.
We don’t just sell eggs like any ordinary business, either. At Sauder’s Eggs, we see our company as a family and we’re excited to treat all our customers as part of that same family as well. We love providing you with a phenomenal customer experience almost as much as we love providing you with fresh and delicious eggs.
We also like to use our platform as egg experts to educate families and individuals like you, to help you gain more knowledge about eggs and the business behind them. We hope that we can help teach you a few things about eggs that you can pass on to others.
If you have any questions at all about what we do or about eggs in general, don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re always excited to hear from you!