With “eggflation” in full swing, it’s more important than ever to be able to decode an egg carton. What does cage-free really mean? Are organic eggs truly better than conventional eggs? And is it worth shelling out extra for pasture-raised eggs? Here, we’re breaking down the jargon to help you shop a little smarter.
7 Egg Labels That Do Not Matter
These are the seven types of eggs we don’t think are worth paying a premium for:
1. Unique Shell Color Doesn’t Mean Better Egg
Green and blue eggshells look pretty, but that’s about where their significance ends. Eggshell color is simply determined by the breed of the hen and doesn’t have any correlation to nutritional value.
2. What the Grades Mean
The grade of the egg indicates its quality and freshness, but both Grade A and Grade AA are high quality and safe to eat. Don’t worry about Grade B eggs, as you likely won’t see them in stores: they’re most often used for commercial food production instead.
3. Farm Fresh Eggs
Because there’s no standard definition and it isn’t regulated by the USDA, the term “farm fresh” doesn’t hold any value.
4. No Added Hormones
It’s illegal to give hormones to egg-laying chickens, so this label applies to all eggs, whether it’s on the packaging or not.
5. Natural Eggs
Similarly, because they don’t contain artificial ingredients or added color and are minimally processed, all shell eggs are natural according to the USDA.
6. Vegetarian-Fed Eggs
This label means that no animal byproducts were used to feed the chickens. The catch? Chickens are omnivores, so a vegetarian diet isn’t necessarily healthier. It also says nothing about their living conditions.
7. Pasture-Raised Eggs
Because this term isn’t regulated by the USDA, any company can slap this on their label. But it does have meaning if paired with a Certified Humane seal (see more below).
4 Regulated Egg Labels
These are egg labels that are regulated by the USDA, and may be worth spending extra money on:
1. Cage-Free Eggs
This USDA-regulated term, sometimes called free-roaming, means the hens can roam vertically and horizontally in an indoor area—usually a barn or poultry house—and have unlimited access to food and water. But because there’s no space regulations, conditions could still be very cramped.
2. Free-Range Eggs
Another USDA-regulated term, free-range means the hens have continuous access to the outdoors, where they can roam and forage for wild plants and insects. But that access might be limited, and could consist of a small concrete yard.
3. Organic Eggs
These eggs are laid by uncaged, free-range hens raised on organic feed free of conventional pesticides or fertilizers. The label is strictly regulated through USDA’s National Organic Program.
4. Certified Humane Eggs
In order for a company to secure this seal, a nongovernmental third party auditor must sign off on the hens being treated humanely. The hens must have continuous access to nutritious feed and water and have sufficient freedom of movement.
If the label also specifies “free-range,” each hen must have access to the outdoors for at least six hours per day, with at least two square feet of outdoor space each.
If it specifies “pasture-raised,” it means the hens must be outside, on a pasture mainly covered with living vegetation, for at least six hours a day. They must each have at least 108 square feet of pasture.
At the very minimum, it’s worth spending more for cage-free eggs. But if it’s in your budget, opt for cartons labeled organic, certified humane, and pasture-raised, which will ensure the eggs came from hens who spent most of their lives outdoors. Better yet, purchase eggs from your local CSA, which supports local farmers, ensures high-quality eggs, and might even be the cheapest option right now.