Culinate editor’s note: Shopping for eggs, once so simple, is now bewildering. This week Kelly Myers tackles egg-carton labels and what they really mean, plus offers a frittata recipe. Food editor Carrie Floyd confesses her confusion over egg buying. And next week Jes Burns will report on how to get the best eggs you’ll ever taste, by keeping your own chickens.
Eggs are just about perfect. We eat them raw and cooked, whole and separated, whipped and baked and fried. We eat them for their protein, folic acid, polyunsaturated fat, and vitamins. We eat them, quite simply, because we love them.
Eggs are little packages of goodness. And they are cheap. Or used to be, before eggs stopped being “eggs” and became “cage free,” “organic,” “antibiotic free,” “fed a vegetarian diet,” and the like. The egg is no longer an egg, but a choice. And eating eggs is no longer just about taste or health, but about food purity and animal rights as well.
I work as a chef. I cook with eggs every day. But in the grocery store I, too, pause at the egg case in frustration. What do all the labels really mean? Which eggs should I buy, and for which reasons?
Conventional egg production, otherwise known as the battery system, crams as many as six chickens into a cage at a time, leaving each bird with less personal space than a sheet of ordinary notebook paper. Critics say the battery system causes the spread of disease, requires the painful debeaking of birds, and restricts natural bird behaviors, such as dusting or nesting.
I didn’t want to buy eggs from these birds, but wasn’t sure how to figure out which eggs came from which birds. So, after talking to farmers, poultry scientists, and a physician, I put together the following guide to egg-carton terminology.
Brown eggs come from chickens with brown feathers, and white eggs come from chickens with white feathers. The color of the shell indicates nothing about the egg’s nutritional profile, taste, or the manner in which the laying hen was raised.
“Natural” sounds swell, but the label is unregulated and lacks meaning.
This label indicates that no animal by-products, such as beef tallow or chicken feathers, are in the chickens’ feed. And “vegetarian” sure sounds healthy. But chickens are natural omnivores who like to spend time outside digging for protein in the form of insects and worms, so the “vegetarian” label is really just another way of saying that the hens can’t go outside.
Still, an all-vegetarian diet is nutritionally possible for chickens with the addition of synthetic vitamin B-12.
Omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid considered crucial by some for developing brains and preventing heart disease and depression. Farmers boost the omega-3 content of their hens’ eggs by adding ground flaxseed, algae, or even fish oil to the birds’ feed.
An omega-3 egg contains about 200 to 300 milligrams of omega-3s. But a three-ounce portion of salmon will give you about 1,000 milligrams, nearly three times that of the enriched egg.
The FDA banned the use of hormones — most notably diethylstilbestrol, or DES — in poultry in 1959, after they not only caused tragic health problems in consumers but also failed to stimulate growth in chickens. “Hormone free” is a misleading bit of marketing that suggests other egg producers are illegally dosing their birds.
Regular dosing of livestock, including poultry, can encourage the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can, in turn, sicken humans. (NPR covered this story back in 2001.) Unfortunately, the term “antibiotic free” is unregulated and impossible to verify. And it’s difficult to pinpoint the extent of the egg industry’s reliance on antibiotics to preserve poultry health.
Robert Spiller, an animal-science professor at California State Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, California, owned commercial egg flocks for more than 20 years. He says that the expense of antibiotics (the entire flock, not just a lone sick bird, must be medicated) means that they’re rarely used on laying hens. “It would have to be an extreme health situation,” he says.
Instead of antibiotics, Spiller says, egg producers employ biosecurity measures (limiting rodents as well as human visitors), vaccinations, and genetic selection for disease resistance to keep birds healthy. Besides, he adds, antibiotics used on humans (such as tetracyclines) are banned for use on laying hens.
Yet 64 egg producers in the United States own flocks of at least a million birds. With chickens crowded in battery cages, it’s hard to imagine how producers control for disease without some antibiotic use.
“The concern about antibiotic residue is that we don’t know what it does when it gets in our system,” says Monica Myklebust, an assistant professor at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
“Theoretically, taking in these antibiotics can alter our system,” she says. “I like to have people think about why are they using these antibiotics in the first place. The more stressful (the chickens’) conditions are, the more likely they’ll get sick.”
Let’s quote from Marion Nestle’s book What to Eat here: “This seal is sponsored by national and state humane societies and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It attests to how the hens are treated, but is less concerned with what they are fed.” Eggs with this label come from birds that, presumably, have better living conditions than battery birds.
This label is fluffier than a newly hatched chick; it means only that the eggs, like most of the eggs sold in the U.S., came from battery birds. “The purpose of this program is to make you think commercial egg production is kind to hens,” writes Nestle. “You should not be surprised that 80 percent of industrial egg producers are certified this way. This certification merely attests that a company gives food and water to its caged hens.”
Cage-free eggs should come from hens that are not confined in cages. Generally, this means that the birds live on the floor of a large barn, typically by the thousands. Keep in mind, however, that the term “cage free” is not legally regulated.
Fast-food chains Burger King and the Pacific Northwest’s Burgerville announced plans this year to switch to cage-free eggs. (Burger King committed to cage-free eggs for only two percent of its total eggs to start with, but Burgerville declared it would use cage-free eggs exclusively.) Marketplace muscle may force third-party inspection for a system that intends to give hens room to roost, dust themselves, and nest.
Fertile eggs, by definition, have been in contact not just with hens but with roosters. Which means that the hens most likely were not kept in cages.
The phrase “free range” evokes fresh air and open skies. But according to Mitch Head, of the industry group United Egg Producers, the term, like “cage free,” is not linked to any outside regulator that inspects laying hens. Head says that “free range” means chickens have access to the outdoors; it does not necessarily mean the birds actually go outdoors.
Ideally, “free range” would mean that hens spread out on pasture and scratch for grubs and other goodies. But on an industrial scale, the label is likely to mask the fact that thousands of chickens housed in a large shed may or may not have gone outdoors through a lone small door.
The difference is important. How chickens are confined dictates their diet. Hens allowed to forage have a greater chance of eating a variety of foods — not just chicken feed, but also worms, bugs, grass, herbs, fruit, and nuts. Why should you care? Because when you eat an egg, you eat what the hen ate that laid it. And hens that are pastured (see Pastured, below) eat better diets than hens that aren’t.
Reality check: How freely can they range? All chickens are confined in one way or another. If not, they would be vulnerable to predators and it would be difficult to find their eggs.
All organic eggs are certified by the USDA. Organic eggs come from hens whose feed is free of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and commercial fertilizers. Organic chicken feed contains no animal byproducts. The hens have never been given antibiotics. They are cage-free and have access to the outdoors.
Consumers will pay more for organic eggs. “Organic chicken feed is about twice as expensive as conventional chicken grain,” explains Jesse LaFlamme of Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs in Monroe, New Hampshire.
“One of the greatest cost factors is how the hens are kept,” he says. “In conventional egg production, farmers can have up to 250,000 chickens in a single barn. The largest organic barns hold about 20,000 hens, but they are free to roam, and they lay their eggs in nests. Organic hens are able to act like chickens.”
Here’s a label you won’t see often. That’s because “pasture raised” is less often a printed label than a verbal explanation from farmers or backyard hobbyists about how they care for their birds.
(Pastured, of course, is not the same as pasteurized. Pasteurized eggs are available, and appeal to people afraid of salmonella, but cost as much as 50 percent more than unpasteurized eggs and are difficult to whip into a froth.)
Pastured hens range freely, sampling grubs, worms, bugs, grass, and fallen fruit and nuts. Only the smallest of farms — less than 1,000 birds — can put their hens out on enough greenery to support the birds.
Pasturing requires diligent management, as the chickens must be moved to a fresh patch as soon as they eat the grass down. Farmers also provide grain, corn or soy for calories and fats, and calcium-rich oyster shells for eggshell formation.
As Nina Planck points out in her book Real Food, “Eggs from pastured birds are superior to those from hens raised indoors, whose yolks are literally pale imitations of those from hens on grass. Pastured yolks are a rich yellow from the beta-carotene in plants. They also contain more monounsaturated fat, vitamins A and E, folic acid, lutein, and beta-carotene than indoor eggs. Pastured eggs are dramatically richer in omega-3 fats, which prevent obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and depression.”
Norma Cravens of Springwater Farm in Yankton, Oregon, turns out her flock every morning. “Some will go to the edge of the woods; some go straight to the swamp,” she observes. “They really do choose their own foods.” Cravens has even seen her chickens nibble on comfrey leaves and maitake mushrooms.
The best sources of pasture-raised eggs are farmers’ markets and friends who raise their own chickens. Small-scale chicken farmers often follow organic standards but, because of the hassle and expense, have not sought official organic certification.
A Venezuelan friend once complained to me that the eggs in this country taste like nothing. I thought he was just picky until years later, when I bought a dozen eggs from someone at my credit union. They were luscious and rich, with thick orange yolks. Immediately, I understood what an egg was supposed to taste like. Since then, I buy pastured eggs as often as I can get them.
“I think the way an animal is treated is reflected in the foods they produce,” says Myklebust, the Maryland doctor. “Whether they sit in a nest, dust themselves, interact with other chickens. Or are they debeaked, is their food restricted to increase egg production? That’s a stressed animal. They’re going to produce food that has a different nutrient content. But I don’t have proof.”
Until science tests Myklebust’s hunch about the connection between the life of the chicken and the quality of the egg it lays, there are really only three ways for a cook to know an egg. First, look for organic eggs — it’s the only label certified by an independent third party. Second, buy eggs direct, from people instead of stores, so you can ask the farmer how she raises her chickens.
Finally, trust your powers of observation. Crack open an egg. Is the yolk a vivid orange and the white clear and firm? Urban dwellers, does this egg taste better than most eggs you have ever eaten? If so, chances are good that the chicken ate well. And you will, too.
Kelly Myers is a chef at Nostrana in Portland, Oregon.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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