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Proper Green: Green Eggs and Baking

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If you're using eggs in your holiday baking, first consider what the labels on egg cartons really mean for the environment.

Dear Proper Green,

What is the difference between regular eggs and other options such as cage-free?

-Jackie C., Arlington, VA

Dear Jackie,

When you're making your shopping list for holiday baking, eggs will almost certainly be on the list. How do you decide which type you'll choose? There are a lot of terms used on egg cartons that are easily misinterpreted. In reality, organic eggs make the strongest environmental claim, while others tend to bask in the halo effect of the organic label. As positive as the claims of the other labels might be, they don't speak to the environmental effects of the product. Neither do they say anything about the quality or, for the most part, the nutrition, of the egg. Note that organic and free-range eggs are so defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), while the United Egg Producers, the industry trade group, certifies conventional eggs and cage-free eggs by a different set of standards. There are other independent certification programs too, such as American Humane Certified by Humane Heartland. Here is a rundown of various labels you'll see applied to eggs.

  • Conventional Eggs - These are the regular eggs from chickens that live in cages within a large "layer" house. Also called factory farming, this setup produces many eggs at a low cost with little regard for the animal's quality of life or the environmental impact. Most regular eggs, or standard cage eggs, are certified by the United Egg Producers for meeting safety and quality standards.
  • Organic - "Organic" is a label applied to products that have been certified by the USDA as having met federal handling and production regulations. Organic eggs come from cage-free birds who have been fed a diet free of pesticides, fertilizers, or antibiotics. They have access to the outdoors, so their diet may also include wild plants and insects. While the eggs are nutritionally the same as conventional eggs, organic eggs are environmentally more sustainable because the animals' feed is produced in a way that prohibits the use of growth hormones, plastic, synthetic substances, and other additives that could leach into the environment and expose humans. Overall, organic eggs are probably the best choice from a sustainability standpoint.
  • Cage-free - Cage-free eggs are produced by cage-free birds. Cage-free birds are kept in growing houses where they can freely roam, socialize, and nest, although this doesn't mean they have access to the outdoors. A cage-free certification has no environmental relevance and cage-free eggs are nutritionally the same as standard cage eggs. Rather, choosing cage-free eggs has implications for animal welfare. All USDA-certified organic eggs are cage-free, but not all cage-free eggs are organic.
  • Free-range - Sometimes used interchangeably with "free-roaming," "free-range" means the bird lived in a facility outdoors or with access to outdoors. Free-range birds may eat wild plants and insects, and are able to move around freely. Similar to cage-free eggs, the positives of free-range eggs relate to animal-welfare concerns. The eggs are nutritionally on-par with conventional eggs and are not necessarily more environmentally sustainable.
  • Omega-3 Enriched - Supplements that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as flaxseed and fish oil, are added to the bird's diet to boost the naturally occurring levels of omega-3 in the eggs. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for good health, but our bodies can't make them. We have to get them from our diet, so there can be a nutritional benefit to choosing omega-3 enriched eggs. However, eggs are also high in cholesterol, so it may be better to diversify your sources omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 enriched eggs do not make any claims about environmental sustainability or animal well-being.
  • Egg Products - these are products that are derived from eggs and can be used as a substitute for shell eggs in baking or cooking. Some of these products have different nutritional profiles from shell eggs — for example, Egg Beaters have less cholesterol — but most do not provide any information on the source of their eggs, so it’s hard to determine environmental and animal welfare impact.”

So before you pick up eggs, consult this handy table to determine what claims the label is making. It's especially worth assessing before you do shopping for your holiday baking.


Purdue University
United Egg Producers
U.S. Department of Agriculture

What kind of eggs do you prefer to purchase? Tell us which kind and why in the comments below!

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Proper Green
Proper Green

Proper Green is Recyclebank's green advice column. From promoting good manners in a green world (because ideas about what constitutes proper behavior and... more

  • Jane H. 2 years ago
    I buy my eggs from a local farmer. Their two children are responsible for them and earn money from the sales. I believe they are free range.
  • Nancy B. 2 years ago
    Just when I THOUGHT that organic eggs were the best egg:( After reading Kathleens comment I'm not so sure. How about eggs that have been made by making the animals welfare the #1 priority FIRST..then all of the good things for the eggs will follow. Our food has become so.."tainted" since I was a child. It is really scary when you "take your head out of the sand" and really learn the truth behind our food supply..MEAT AND EGGS being right up there.
  • Kathleen D. 2 years ago
    As you note above, it's important for shoppers to consider the fact that there is not a great deal of standardization in the way eggs from "free range" and "cage free" chickens are certified. Also, there are other factors for animal welfare in the egg/chicken industry, such as what is done with male chicks that are born (they are killed) and what is done with the chickens after they pass egg-laying stage of life (they are also killed). This has little to do with environmental issues (unless all of killed baby male chicks creates a negative impact?), however to receive the green "check" above in the chart for "animal welfare," these things should perhaps be considered.
    • AmyS@Recyclebank 2 years ago

      Hi Kathleen! Thanks for adding to the conversation; you make a great point. To be sure, there are many other worthwhile points of discussion about egg production that aren't covered in this post. We've edited the post to try to make it clearer that the chart is meant to clarify the claim the label makes. A checkmark in the Animal Welfare column does not necessarily mean that it gets a rubber stamp for how the animals are treated -- only that it makes some claim about animal welfare, as opposed to, say, quality. Keep the thoughtful comments coming!