Purchasing Different Types of Eggs
Did you know people have been eating eggs for centuries? Although the first domesticated birds arrived in the Americas in 1493 with Christopher Columbus, records show the Chinese and Egyptians raised birds for eggs as early as 1400 BC.
Today, most stores in the United States sell brown or white chicken eggs, but consumers still have many choices. The following are some of the options you may encounter on a trip to the grocery store or market:
While many stores sell white or brown eggs, eggs can also come in different colors, such as blue. Contrary to popular belief, an egg’s nutritional value does not determine its color—the breed of the hen actually determines the color. Although brown eggs may cost more than white eggs (because many chickens that lay brown eggs are larger, so they require more feed), the same-sized eggs will have the same nutritional value.
Cage-free, Pasture-raised, and Free-range Eggs
Cage-free eggs come from hens that weren’t confined to a cage; instead, they are usually housed indoors in a large, open barn. Some cage-free hens may have access to the outdoors, but this isn’t required. These hens have higher death rates because they are free to injure each other in the barn, and they also come in contact with feces more than caged hens, which increases the possibility of infections and antibiotic use.
Pasture-raised eggs refer to eggs that come from hens that are raised outside on a pasture field. Although these hens are usually given high-quality feed, they may still peck at insects, grass, seeds, and weeds in the pasture, which is considered more natural. Because of the high labor and feed costs, these eggs are more expensive. The term “pasture-raised eggs” are not regulated by the government, so consumers must be knowledgeable about theses eggs when purchasing them. (Ask questions to gauge whether producers are telling the truth about these eggs.)
Free-range, or free-roaming, eggs are used to describe chickens raised for meat, so they have no meaning when describing eggs. Therefore, the USDA does not recognize this term for eggs.
Eggs Enhanced with Omega-3 Fatty Acid
The best sources of omega-3 fatty acids are certain types of cold water fish, such as salmon, but you can also get these fatty acids from eggs. Normally, egg yolks have varying amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. However, this amount can be increased by including ingredients such as flax or fish oil into a hen’s diet. Omega-3 fatty acid-enhanced eggs may be desirable for people who don’t eat fish, but these eggs generally cost more because the hens require a non-standard feed.
The USDA’s National Organic Program labels eggs organic only if they meet the following standards: the eggs must come from hens that weren’t raised in cages and had access to the outdoors; the hens were fed only organic feed from a certified organic farm; and the hens weren’t given hormones or antibiotics (unless it was to treat a disease). Additionally, force molting is not allowed on hens that lay USDA organic eggs. (Molting naturally occurs when hens shed old feathers as new feathers grow in, and the reproductive tract rests.) Organic eggs typically cost more because of the higher cost of feed.
Vegetarian eggs are eggs that come from hens that weren’t fed animal by-products. There are no specific housing and living requirements for these hens, and although organic eggs are vegetarian eggs, a vegetarian hen’s feed doesn’t need to be organic.
J. Beatty, K. Shelnutt and G. P. A. Kauwell, “A Consumer's Guide to Eggs” (FCS80024), UF/IFAS Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences (11/2013).