The choices in the egg aisle—organic, cage-free, free-range, vegetarian-fed—seem to be ever-expanding. Find out what those egg labels really mean (and what they most decidedly don't mean) and figure out what types of eggs are right for you.
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"Cage-free" means that the chickens raised as poultry or the hens laying "cage-free" eggs are, quite simply, not kept in cages. They are free to walk around the hen house, to perch on roosts, and to lay eggs in nests.
This is in great contrast to most chickens raised for meat or their eggs which are kept in cages so small that they can't fully open their wings, much less walk or move about. "Cage-free" eggs and chicken are also fairly widely available—and a solidly better choice than most commercial chicken and eggs—at mainstream grocery stores, unlike the less common "pastured" chicken and eggs.
That said, "cage-free" chickens are kept in hen houses, often in cramped conditions, and may or may not have access to outdoors and pasture.
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"Free-range" is a bit of a vague term, at least as regulated by the USDA, which calls for poultry to be "allowed access to the outside."
As you might imagine, that phrase can be interpreted generously or quite narrowly. Some farmers let their free-range chickens roam on real fields and pastures. Larger producers, however, have been known to follow only the letter of the law, not its spirit, and put an open window or small door that leads to a paved patch of ground at one end of a large, crowded hen house.
If nothing else, though, free-range poultry and eggs at least come from birds that were raised cage-free.
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Eggs with labels claiming "Omega-3 enrichment" come from hens that have been fed a diet rich in sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as flaxseed oil, linseed oil, and kelp.
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Organic eggs are required to come from chickens that are fed certified organic feed (that is, feed grown without the use of synthetic chemicals, irradiation, sewage sludge, or genetically modified organisms) and are both cage-free and free-range.
"Organic" is the only one of these labels that not only has regulations attached to it but actual inspections and enforcement.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
05 of 06
Pastured eggs are pretty much what we all would like our eggs to be. They come from chickens living the way you might imagine a chicken would want to live: walking around in open fields and woods, foraging for food (primarily seeds and insects, with the occasional small rodent or reptile if they can get them), and going back into a hen house at night to roost, nest, and lay eggs.
Importantly, "pastured" doesn't have a legal meaning or certification process. Pastured eggs tend to come from small farms; the farmers often sell at farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer methods. It is usually easy to find out more about a specific farm that sells pastured eggs since they are often rightfully proud of how they care for their animals.
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