Humans have a long-standing love affair with eggs. It makes sense, actually, because eggs are not only rich in flavor, but also full of nearly every nutrient our body needs–and craves.
Besides the fact that eggs are rich in nutrients, they also provide protein and build muscle, which is especially essential for those who have chosen a diet consisting mainly of vegetables.
In all honesty, eggs could be considered the perfect food. They’ve been a breakfast staple for many centuries…and for good reason. They are delicious, simple to prepare, and easy on the pocketbook, especially if you raise your own chickens.
But not all eggs are created equal, and depending on how the chicken is raised, one egg might not be equally tasty as the other. More importantly, you may not appreciate the way the chickens are actually being raised for grocery store eggs.
The Misleading Egg Labels
In grocery stores, egg cartons have many different kinds of labels, like cage-free eggs, free-range eggs, organic eggs, and pasture-raised eggs–among others.
It can be tricky, confusing, and frustrating to attempt to choose the perfect carton of eggs for your family. Some labels specify how much space the chickens get and in which type of environment they are raised.
Most of the cartons paint a pretty picture, but determining which type of egg is actually good for you isn’t really all that straight forward.
Read on to learn the differences between cage-free and free-range chickens, and what that may mean for your eggs.
Cage-Free Chicken Eggs
The USDA regulates the terminology used when it comes to labeling eggs. In fact, the term “cage-free” means that chickens are literally not in a cage…but that’s about all it means. Unfortunately, this term is a tad misleading, and many consumers think they are purchasing eggs produced by chickens roaming a lovely pasture. On the contrary, cage-free chickens may be crammed into buildings without being allowed outside at all.
Chickens living in “hen houses” can roam around as they please, but there isn’t much space available because most facilities pack these buildings tight with hens.
Often, chicken feed in large cage-free operations contain antibiotics to protect the spread of disease amongst a large enclosed flock, as well as hormones to increase egg production.
Pros of the Cage-Free Chicken
- Cage-free chickens remain active and healthier because they can move about more than a caged chicken. Like free-range chickens, they are less likely become obese.
- Cage-free chickens have space to expand their feathers and roam freely.
- Cage-free chickens are provided with food and water at various locations.
Cons of the Cage-Free Chicken
- Cage-free chickens can attack and hurt each other.
- Cage-free chickens’ beaks are often removed to prevent pecking and cannibalsm amongst a large flock. Some see this as inhumane.
- Cage-free chickens are more prone to viruses and diseases because of the tightly enclosed space.
- Respiratory problems may arise due to poor ventilation
Free-Range Chicken Eggs
Free-range chicken eggs are eggs produced by chickens that are not raised in cages and MAY get to play outside.
Free-range chickens might have access to the outdoors. What I mean is, there is a door, and the farmer may let the chicken out into a screened-in run of sorts. Stop at any of these free-range commercial operations and I bet you won’t see many chickens outdoors.
So, it can be easy to assume that free-range hens are living outdoors, in a luscious meadow, snacking on bugs and leafy vegetation. Unfortunately, in many cases, free-range (commercially raised) chickens only have access to the outdoors for a short while, and may not even have vegetation in their enclosures.
In summary, free-range chickens at your neighbors house is very different than free-range commercially raised chickens. It may be the same label, but they are very different situations.
Pros of the Free-Range Chicken
Same as the cage-free chicken plus:
- Free-Range chickens may have access to the outdoors, get some sun, and spread their wings
Cons of The Free-Range Raised Chicken:
- Exactly the same as the cage-free chicken.
Remember, the only difference between the two types of eggs from commercial operations is that the free-range chicken may get to go outside. Otherwise, they are quite similar.
If you want to be sure you are supporting humanely-raised chickens, look for “Certified humane” and “Animal welfare approved” labels on egg cartons.
So, which type of egg should you purchase? Free-range or Cage-Free?
Well, of course, my first choice would be neither. I’m sorry to burst your bubble but the best eggs you can buy are going to be from true free-range chickens–think wild chicken living in nature. Many people who practice sustainable living (sourcing and growing your own food) believe chickens are foundational to homesteading.
Eggs that come from chickens with a natural diet contain more Vitamin E, Vitamin A, beta-carotene, omega-3 fatty acids, and somewhat less cholesterol (not to mention they taste much better!)
If you can’t raise your own chickens, then buy locally from your neighbor who sells their chicken’s eggs or at the farmer’s market. Odds are, their chickens are raised humanely, without antibiotics or beak removal. You could even ask to meet the chickens that produced your eggs. I bet most chicken lovers wouldn’t turn down an opportunity to show off their flock and talk about their chickens–just plan to be there awhile!
Pasture-raised Chicken Eggs
If you are unable to raise chickens, and you can’t find locally raised birds…you have one more option: pasture-raised eggs.
Pasture-raised chickens are supposedly raised with more time outdoors. But always research the brand you are buying to make sure they are allowing their birds outside. The FDA does not yet regulate this label, so know who you are buying from.
Requirements are always changing, and the USDA does a pretty good job of creating criteria for the labeling of chicken eggs. It is up to you, as the consumer, to research labels, and the brands you are purchasing.
So, if you want to ensure that your eggs are coming from humanely-raised chickens, and will pack the nutrient-rich protein punch your body craves, then keep up with USDA info, and ask questions.
Knowing your breakfast eggs came from a happy hen makes the morning all the more sunny.