Dear Proper Green,
What is the difference between regular eggs and other options such as cage-free?
-Jackie C., Arlington, VA
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.