What the Labels on Egg Cartons Actually Mean

Eggs in a carton
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Eggs are one of the most nutritious and affordable foods you can buy. They’re packed full of protein and essential nutrients. However when you walk through the refrigerated section of your grocery store, it can get confusing. You have to decide: Do I buy the brown ones? The white ones? The cheapest ones? The organic ones? Oh, wait, what about the cage-free ones? How can you tell what’s the most sustainable—what hens were treated the most humanely? With all the labels that are placed on cartons, it’s difficult to discern which ones are worth buying. To start, you should know that aside from “certified organic,” the USDA does not set any definitions or requirements for labels on egg cartons. Here’s what you need to know to be a savvier shopper.

Jordan Mazur, M.S., R.D., is the coordinator of nutrition and team sports dietitian for the San Francisco 49ers.

Conventional Eggs

These are inexpensive and readily available. The hens that lay them are housed in a very small space. While they can live in a constricted area, these hen houses allow for little to no movement nor sunlight. Although they aren’t treated as well, their eggs are still nutrient dense and full of protein for the cost.

Organic

The only term that the USDA sets requirements and standards for is “certified organic.” In order to qualify as organic, those must come from hens that are fed only organic feed. This means the feed is free of animal byproducts, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or other chemicals. No genetically modified foods, no hormones, or drugs can be used either. On top of that, organic eggs must come from hens that are given antibiotics only in the case of an infection, not on a routine basis. In order to be organic, those chickens also have to live in cage-free environments and have access to the outdoors. So when you’re buying organic, you’re also buying cage-free.

Free-Range

This term can cause confusion. Free-range eggs don’t necessarily mean the same thing as organic. The USDA requires that free-range chickens only have access to a small, fenced-in patch of cement that’s outdoors. The chickens may or may not even use it. Free-range chickens also may be fed non-organic feed and can be given antibiotics or drugs.

Cage-Free

Cage-free is not the same as free-range. Cage-free simply means that chickens aren’t kept in cages. They still might live in cramped facilities on top of each other and never see sunlight.

Other Terms

Some other terms you might encounter on egg cartons include “vegetarian eggs,” “antibiotic-free eggs,” or “natural eggs.” None of these terms are subject to any requirements like USDA organic eggs. Since there’s no governance on these eggs, farmers set their own standards for what these terms mean.

From a nutrition perspective, there’s not much of a macronutrient (protein, fat, and carbohydrate) difference between organic eggs and conventional eggs. Additionally, there’s no evidence to show that organic eggs have less cholesterol than conventional eggs. The nutritional content of the egg most likely depends on the feed the hen was fed. One study showed hens that were fed an omega-3 enriched feed had five times as much beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and 39 percent less pro-inflammatory fatty acids in their eggs than conventional eggs.

Bottom line: Don’t be fooled by all the terms on the carton. You really have two options: conventional or organic eggs. The biggest difference is how the birds are treated and cared for. The other big difference is price. Organic can sometimes be double the price per dozen of conventional eggs. So, the decision comes down to your personal and ethical preference. If we had to pick, we’d go with the eggs that are organic, pastured (i.e. free-range), omega-3 enriched, and stamped with the Certified Humane or Animal Welfare Approved seal. If you have to pay a dollar or two more than conventional, you now know that it’s worth it.

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