Types of Eggs

What Egg Labels Mean (and What They Don't)

Box of eggs on striped tablecloth
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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 here (and what they most decidedly don't mean) and figure out what types of eggs are right for you.

  • 01 of 06

    Cage-Free Eggs

    Cage-Free Eggs
    Cage-Free Eggs. Photo © Joern Pollex/Getty Images

    "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.

  • 02 of 06

    Free-Range Eggs

    Eggs in Carton
    Free Range Eggs. Tim Graham / Contributor / Getty Images

    "Free-range" is a bit of a nutty term, at least in its technical meaning 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 chicken and eggs at least come from birds that were raised cage-free (see above).

  • 03 of 06

    Omega-3 Enriched Eggs

    Omega-3 Eggs
    Eggs in a Carton. Igor Golovniov / EyeEm / Getty Images

    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.

  • 04 of 06

    Organic Eggs

    Box of eggs on striped tablecloth
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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 all of these labels that has not just regulations attached to it, but actual inspections and enforcement.

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Pastured Eggs

    Farmer With Eggs, Hens And Geese
    Monty Rakusen / Getty Images

    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: they walk 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. 

  • 06 of 06

    Vegetarian-Fed Eggs

    Fresh Eggs
    Eggs. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

    "Vegetarian-fed" is another rather odd label. All it means is that the feed the farmer fed the chickens did not contain meat, fish, or animal by-products. Chickens that are allowed on actual pasture or in fields and can forage for their own food will have, most likely, eaten plenty of worms and insects.