From cage-free” to “free-run” and “omega 3”, egg cartons are littered with various terms and buzzwords making it rather confusing for the average consumer to know what he or she is actually buying. The price of a dozen eggs can range anywhere from $2.99 to $8.99, but it begs the question; Are the more expensive ones worth it? So here is a simple guide to buying healthy eggs so you can make an informed decision that works for you.
How to Buy Healthy Eggs
Here are some easy tips to help you dissect egg labels and buy the healthy eggs available to you.
Types of Eggs: Size & Colour
White or brown? Medium, large or extra-large?
When it comes to the color of the egg, the only difference is the breed of the chicken. Much like there are different varieties of tomatoes that come from different breeds of plant, brown eggs simply come from a different breed of hen. White eggs are laid by white-feathered chickens with white or light-colored earlobes while the brown ones are laid by brown-feathered chickens with red earlobes. As for size, egg size is related to the age of the hen, as a hen gets older, she lays larger eggs. Nutritionally speaking, the color or size of the egg does not affect its nutritional value, it simply comes down to what is available and which you prefer.
Types of Eggs: Grades, Organic, Free-Run, Free-Range
In addition to color and size, many other marketing buzzwords litter our egg cartons, so let’s have a look at some of the most common terms and types of eggs in this guide to buying healthy eggs.
Grade A Eggs
In Canada, eggs are graded at a grading station before appearing on your grocery store shelf. The grading process checks the condition of the shell, the position of the yolk, and the size of the air cell inside the shell. Grade A eggs can be sold at retail, while Grade B eggs are often used for commercial baking, and Grade C eggs are used in the production of processed egg products.
These are often the most inexpensive type of eggs available in the grocery store. In conventional farming practices, chickens are typically confined to cages, often battery cages, in barns with thousands of birds. These chickens do not have access to the outdoors, or access to nests, perches, or scratching areas. (Hens are naturally compelled to scratch at the ground with their toes in search of seeds, greens, or bugs to eat.) Caged hens are fed enriched grain feed. In 2016, about 90% of egg production was in conventional housing, however, Canada has committed to phasing out conventional egg production in order to improve animal welfare conditions and provide a new form of housing for enriched colony eggs, housing hens in smaller groups to help reduce stress on the birds, allowing them to express their more natural behaviors.
Free-run eggs (sometimes labeled cage-free) are not confined to a life in a cage and come from hens that roam the entire barn floor. These hens are able to roam in the barn, however still have no access to the outdoors, and may experience overcrowding. Free-run hens are also fed enriched grain feed and are able to eat what they find on the barn floor.
Like free-run eggs, free-range eggs come from hens that live cage-free and are housed together on the barn floor but also have access to the outdoors, when weather permits. In Canada, outdoor access is only available seasonally, so hens are housed in barns during colder months. In addition to feed, hens are able to eat what they find outside and on the barn floor.
Organic eggs come from hens raised in free-range barns, with access to the outdoors, weather permitting. All organic hens are fed certified organic feed, and hens may also eat when they find it outside or on the barn floor. Eggs that are sold as organic are produced under specific standards laid out by the Canadian General Standards Board and certified by a reputable organic certification board.
Pastured-raised is not a term that is officially defined in Canada, however, it typically implies hens who have access to pasture and grass. Pastured birds are raised outdoors based on time of year and location, kept in shelters that help to protect them from predators. Shelters are rotated on different areas of pasture daily so the hens can forage for a larger portion of their food, which is nutritionally superior. In addition to feed, pastured hens forage for their natural diet, which includes grass, seeds, green plants, insects, and worms, which helps to ensure their eggs are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
To add to the confusion, some labels will contain information about the diet of the hen, however, it is not always as beneficial as it might seem.
Chickens are omnivores and their natural diet consists of green plants, wild seeds, and animal foods, such as earthworms, insects, and fly larvae harvested in cow droppings. Vegetarian eggs imply that the hens were fed a feed of grain, however, this is not the most beneficial form of diet to produce the most nutritious egg. Ideally, hens should be pastured or roam outdoors in order to ensure they can forage for their natural diet. Vegetarian-fed eggs are typically conventional eggs unless otherwise specified.
Eggs are a naturally occurring source of omega-3 fat, an essential dietary fatty acid. In order to produce omega-3-enriched eggs, producers will supplement the hen’s feed with omega-3 fatty acids, typically in the form of flaxseed. Although beneficial, omega-3 eggs are also typically conventional eggs unless otherwise specified, so are not necessarily always a better option. If you are looking for omega-3-enhanced eggs, be sure to look for free-range or organic options.
What are the best eggs to buy?
Determining which eggs to buy certainly comes down to what is available and what fits your budget, so here is a simple guide to buying healthy eggs to help you prioritize what to look for:
- Local Pastured Eggs: Your best source for eggs will always be a local farmer that allows his hens to roam free on pasture. If you live in a city centre, visiting your local farmers market is typically your best source to get pasture-raised eggs. Speaking directly to the farmer and learning more about his practices will help to ensure you are buying the best quality eggs you can, and one of the many benefits of shopping local.
- Organic and/or Free-Range Eggs: Second to local pastured eggs, free-range and/or organic eggs would be best. These options help to ensure that eggs had access to the outdoors and the opportunity to forage for a portion of their natural diet.
- Free-Run Eggs: Free-run eggs would be the next best option, as hens were able to roam free and express their more natural behaviors with access to nests, perches, and scratching areas.
Vitamin-enriched eggs, such as omega-3 eggs, or vegetarian-fed eggs do not necessarily ensure a better quality egg and are therefore not necessarily worth the investment. Instead focus on the life quality of the hen, and their ability to roam free, their access to the outdoors, and their diet.
The Bottom Line
Whether they are fried, poached, boiled, or scrambled, there is no denying eggs are an incredibly versatile and nutrient-dense food. They serve as a simple breakfast, brunch, snack, or dinner in a pinch. Use this simple guide to buying healthy eggs to help get you started; knowledge is power and the more you learn, the more you can make an informed decision on the food you purchase. If you have access to a local farm or farmers market, this would be your best option for ensuring you are buying high-quality eggs. If not, choose the best option that fits within your budget at your local grocery store. At the end of the day, any egg is better than a breakfast of boxed cereal.