Labels on Eggs and What They Mean

Egg cartons are not just cardboard boxes designed to help you transport eggs home without breaking them, but a powerful marketing tool. Organic, free range, brown, omega-3 eggs even look healthier, as they have labels with these fancy terms. But is there anything behind them? What labels really indicate that the product is of higher quality, and which ones are marketing tricks?

Image Credit: bigstockphoto.com / Fatality

Modern egg cartons remind of brochures: every inch of the box is used to advertise the product inside. All the adjectives aimed to make you want to buy this particular carton are there to emphasize how good this dozen is and what magnificent lives the hens that laid them are living. However, the real conditions may be not as good as your imagination makes you believe. Besides, not all labels indicate that the eggs in the carton are better than others: some of them are actually meaningless.

Organic

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If eggs are labeled “organic”, it means the hens that laid them are not confined to cages but provided an opportunity to go for a walk within a certain area. It is worthy of note that the amount of space available for chickens to roam is not specified, and the only criterion of this kind is just that – “access” to some open space. It does not mean that chickens roam outdoors often and enjoy breathtaking sunsets while chewing organic worms from the Alps. Still, a door to the outer world is better than no door at all. Another condition that a farm has to meet to be certified organic is the proper diet: hens should not eat foods containing parts of other mammals or chicken, and their food should not be exposed to non-organic pesticides. Since using the label requires certification, it is really supposed to mean that the quality standards are higher.

Cage free

Such hens are not held captive in cages and have an opportunity to roam in a barn with other chickens. While it may seem to be a better environment for hens, such an approach to chicken accommodation is not flawless too: while chickens definitely have more place to stretch their muscles, the rooms in which they are kept are often overcrowded, which leads to stress and injuries. In some farms, debeaking is practiced to reduce the number of injuries: this measure is not that effective and is thought to cause chronic pain in hens, so the practice is prohibited in several countries. However, it does not mean you should avoid egg cartons with a “cage free” on it – it’s a matter of preference.

Rush hour in a hen house Image Credit: Dan Charles / NPR

Free range

This term defines conditions that can be described as an improved version of “cage free”. Not only are they kept out of cages – hens also have access to the outdoors (while they still may prefer not to sunbathe at all).

Pastured

There is no standard definition that would regulate what conditions there should be, but it is presumed that “pastured” chickens spend most of the time enjoying green lawns and fresh air.

Omega-3

Eggs labeled “Omega-3” come from hens that are given a special supplement including extra omega-3, which is often made from flaxseed or fish.

Brown

Well, it means just that – they are brown. Many people prefer brown eggs only because the color makes the eggs look healthier and more natural, but there is no scientific evidence supporting the idea that brown eggs are more beneficial than white eggs.

Vegetarian Fed

Hens are not vegans and are happy to munch on worms and bugs they encounter while stomping the green lawns they are provided access to. However, vegetarian fed chickens are given food that does not contain ingredients that come from farm animals. It does not prevent them from eating some worms that occasionally show up to check if the weather is fine, though.

As you can see, most of the labels have something to do with the environment in which laying hens live. Some of them indicate higher quality of product, like “Organic”, while others do not mean anything special, like “Brown”.

By the way, if you see a “Hormone free” or “Antibiotic free” label, it is not a thing to admire, as antibiotics are very rarely used in poultry, and hormones are prohibited, so actually all – or nearly all – eggs are hormone and antibiotic free, and it’s not a thing to mention as an advantage.

References:

What All Those Labels on Eggs Really Mean – Lifehacker.com

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