So, you've decided to make eggs for breakfast. You grab your carton out of the fridge, set up your cooking station, and then go to crack your egg directly into the pan. That's when you see it: an orange yolk, the hue of a golden sunset, right there in the middle of your membraneous egg white.
Sure, it might look beautiful, but does the color of the yolk actually mean anything? Does the yolk indicate that the egg comes from a pasture-raised chicken, or that the chicken is happy? Here, we break it down for you.
Why Is My Egg Yolk Orange?
Common chicken "wisdom" suggests that the more orange the yolk, the happier the hen was when she laid the egg. A happy egg yolk translates to one that is free to roam and plunder the earth for natural food. Lisa Steele, a fifth-generation chicken keeper and writer at Fresh Eggs Daily, says this isn't necessarily the case.
“An orange yolk is indicative of the chicken’s diet,” says Steele. “So if the chicken is eating a lot of things that have xanthophylls in them, which is beta-carotene, it makes egg yolks orange.” This pigment is in foods like marigold, alfalfa, pumpkin, and a lot of leafy greens. “Chickens that are out in the grass or a pasture are naturally getting it from the things they're eating,” Steele adds.
However, chickens can also get these foods without ever stepping foot into a big open pasture. Feed manufacturers can add these ingredients—marigolds and alfalfa are most common—to their product, and the chickens will in turn produce eggs with sunset orange yolks.
“These foods are nutritious. It’s not orange food coloring,” Steele says. “Feed companies do it because they know people want to see nice orange yolks. It’s sort of artificial, but none of this is bad for them.”
Can Yolk Color Indicate If an Egg Comes From a Pasture-Raised Chicken?
No. The only way to truly know if the egg you’re eating came from a happy chicken that roams a pasture is to see the chickens in their habitat.
“You can fake a pasture-raised egg or an egg from a happy chicken. They can put a chicken in a 12-inch cage and feed it marigold and alfalfa, and you’ll think it was a happy chicken,” Steele says. “The only real way to know is to see that chicken and see that they have a big place to roam and they look healthy and their feathers are glossy.”
Your local farmers market is an excellent place for finding an egg source you trust. However, when shopping the supermarket, your best bet is to understand what the labels on egg cartons actually mean—it’s not always the same as what they imply. This handy guide to egg carton terminology from Cooking Light is an excellent resource.
The One Thing Your Egg Can Tell You Just by Looking at It
If it’s fresh: Steele says the yolks from fresh eggs stand tall and mighty, and the whites are thick and gelatinous. As eggs age, however, the yolks stretch out, and it more closely resembles a flat pancake when cracked into the pan. That doesn’t mean your egg is bad, of course. It just means it’s been sitting around for a while.
A version of this article originally appeared on MyRecipes.com.