This month’s newsletter is the third installment of a series about chickens and eggs. We started in June with a newsletter about my own experience tending backyard chickens. For the July/August newsletter, my daughter and I shared with you our journey incubating fertilized eggs. Now we return to reason #5 for keeping backyard chickens, and that is they provide fresh, amazingly delicious eggs daily.
In the June newsletter I showed you a photo of the difference between a fresh egg and a store bought egg. Can you see the difference?
I mentioned that I had been asked many questions about what the difference is between all of the eggs that you can buy in the store (cage free? Vegetarian? Free range?). So for this month’s newsletter, I will share with you what I learned from dietetics student Cristin Henderson from her research on the nutritional differences between various types of eggs. The bottom line? The slogans that you see on egg cartons at the store are mostly marketing hype—there is not a huge difference between store bought eggs. If your store carries the (very pricey) “pasture-raised” eggs, you can spurge on what will give you the closest thing to fresh eggs. If you are hoping to increase your Omega-3 intake (which we recommend: see the September 2010 newsletter “Brain Fuel for your Kids: Omega 3 fatty acids”), then reach for the Omega 3 enriched eggs, but know that the Omega 3s are found in the yolk. Here is what Cristin had to say about decoding the messages in the egg aisle.. be egg-stra vigilant!
The Incredible Egg, by Cristin Henderson
Walking through the grocery store, you might find yourself wondering why there are so many different kinds of eggs. And what do all of the terms on the carton mean? Should you buy white or brown? Are cage free eggs worth the extra money? The differences are complicated, and the labels misleading, but with a little extra information you can feel confident that you are buying the type of egg that is best for you and your family!
Why eat eggs?
Eggs are versatile and healthy. You can eat them scrambled for breakfast, hard boiled on a salad for lunch, or in a casserole for dinner. Kids love them, and they are fairly inexpensive. They are also a good source of protein at 6 grams per egg. Half of the protein is found in the yolk, which is also where you find the fat and cholesterol. If you use one yolk and several egg whites, you can keep the added flavor without so much fat!
Decoding the Carton
An egg carton is covered with labels that can help you make decisions on which eggs to purchase. Try not to be intimidated by the amount of information. Instead, look at the terms one-by-one to figure out what works best for you.
White/Brown: Do you know why some eggs are brown? It has to do with the breed of hen; the color of the shell has nothing to do with what’s inside. These eggs actually have identical nutritional content!
Pasteurized: Pasteurizing eggs involves performing a series of warm water bath immersions slightly below the temperature that would coagulate the whites of the eggs. The eggs are then coated with wax to keep out microorganisms. This process does not eliminate 100% of the microorganisms, but is a safer choice if the egg is to be consumed raw (cookie dough, sunny side up, etc.). Even though it is safer, some people note a change in the flavor of the egg, so you be the judge!
Hormone Free: This label is misleading. The FDA has not approved any hormones to use in egg and poultry production, so ALL eggs are hormone free even if it’s not on the label!
All Natural: This term typically refers to hens that are not given excessive antibiotics and not fed animal byproducts. But watch out! There is no “official” definition of this term and it is not regulated, so it is not a meaningful label to use when choosing eggs to buy!
Cage Free: This term is unregulated by the USDA or any other third party. The eggs are produced by hens that do not live in separate small cages like those that are conventionally raised, but contrary to what many people think, they do not have the freedom to wander around outside. They are often locked inside a large, indoor space. The conditions for the hens are slightly better than conventionally raised, but not by much.
Free Range: Similar to cage free chickens, free range does not necessarily mean that the chickens are outside all day. It is generally a requirement that the door is opened for a short time daily, but the hens usually stay inside because they want to be near their food and water!
* NOTE: for both cage free and free range eggs, listed above are the minimum requirements. Some farms treat their chickens to better than this minimum, but you can’t tell which ones by looking at the label!
Vegetarian Fed: Chickens are omnivores, eating mostly grains, seeds, and some insects. Occasionally, animal byproducts are introduced into conventional chicken feed to boost nutritional content. In fact, as much as 5% of conventional chicken feed is allowed to be meat and bone meal to supplement the protein and calcium in the chicken’s diet! This is not allowed in vegetarian fed chickens.
Omega-3 Fortified: Greens, flax seeds, insects, or seaweed are added to these hens’ diets, which produces Omega-3 fatty acids in the chicken eggs. Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and good for your heart. These fortified eggs can be a good source of healthy Omega-3’s, especially for people who don’t eat a lot of fish in their diet. Hens that are allowed to run around outside eating insects and grass actually have higher levels of Vitamin E and omega-3’s, so eating these fortified eggs means you are probably getting eggs that are closer nutritionally to those that are raised by small farms.
* NOTE: you have to eat the yolk (not just the egg whites) if you want to consume Omega-3 fatty acids in your eggs!
Antioxidant Fortified: This refers to Vitamin E in eggs, which is generally found when hens are raised in the way mentioned in the Omega-3 fortified section. The same rules apply; you need to eat the yolk to get the benefits!
Organic: These eggs are produced by chickens that are uncaged and fed organic, vegetarian feed free of pesticides, genetically modified plants (GMO’s) and antibiotics. Limiting the use of pesticides is beneficial to the environment by limiting the amount of dangerous chemicals in the ecosystem, and limiting the use of antibiotics can slow down the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the environment. These eggs are typically nutritionally the same as standard eggs unless they are also Omega-3 fortified, but the hens are treated better and there is less negative impact on the environment.
* Organic Valley is a common supermarket brand of both organic eggs and Omega-3 fortified eggs (you can find them at Jewel, Dominick’s and Whole Foods). This brand got a high rating for egg quality and better treatment of hens.
Pasture-raised is a pretty new term on the market today that meaning that the chickens that are allowed to roam freely about. These chickens are also fed organic diets. But beware, these eggs can cost over twice as much as the conventionally raised kind. In fact, a dozen pasture raised eggs will generally cost you at least $6.00!
* An example of this is Vital Farms eggs that can be found at Whole Foods. These got a very high rating for the healthy living environment that the hens are raised in.
As you can see, there are many terms on egg cartons, and not all of them are as humane as they seem. Being aware of these differences can help you make informed choices and decide how to get the most value out of your eggs!
Here is an interesting egg “score-card” that you can use, from the Cornucopia Institute: http://www.cornucopia.org/organic-egg-scorecard/
Thank you Cristin for this “egg-cellent” information about eggs!
Have a great month,
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Green and Plenty: presents the latest in nutrition, delicious and seasonal recipes, green design and wellness tips for the reader and her family.
Wholesome Heart: includes delicious recipes, time-saving tips, and nutrition tidbits.
This column is for information only, and no part of its contents should be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, recommendation or endorsement by the author. You should always ask your physician for his or her recommendation before starting any new health-related activity.