The labels applied to our food — particularly our produce and meat products — can be confusing and even misleading. Terms such as “organic,” “natural,” “clean” and “antibiotic-free” all sound great, but only some of them carry actual meaning or are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
One of those labels is “pasture-raised,” and you’ve likely seen it on the pricier egg cartons at your local grocery store, along with the terms “cage-free” and “free-range.”
But cage-free or free-range eggs and pasture-raised eggs are not created equal.
“The term ‘cage-free’ isn’t quite as great as it sounds,” Kylene Bogden, a registered dietitian and wellness adviser for Love Wellness, told HuffPost. “While this label is regulated by the USDA, it just means the hens aren’t kept in cages. They are permitted to ‘freely roam a building, room or enclosed area.’ This is not ideal, because they do not have access to the outdoors.”
Pasture-raised eggs, on the other hand, are not regulated by the USDA. Still, Bogden recommends them over cage-free or free-range eggs, even with their heftier price tag.
“When you see that your carton of eggs says ‘pasture-raised’ in addition to the ‘certified humane’ or ‘animal welfare-approved’ stamp, this suggests that each hen had at least 108 square feet of outdoor space to roam free and eat from nature,” she said.
In Search Of Deep Golden Yolks
Crack a free-range or cage-free egg open, and you’ll probably notice a nice yellow yolk. Crack open a pasture-raised egg, on the other hand, and you’ll most likely see that the yolk has a rich golden — almost orange — hue.
Jessica Humphrey, a spokesperson for Vital Farms, one of the leading pasture-raised egg brands, said the color of the yolk all comes down to what a hen is eating.
“Everything a hen eats, including pasture grazing and supplemental feed, impacts yolk color,” she told HuffPost. “Because the girls are pasture-raised, it’s natural for yolk color to vary. This variation is affected by how often hens eat and what they eat. In the summer, the girls tend to eat less due to the warmer temperatures. In the winter, they tend to eat more to stay warm.”
Humphrey added that Vital Farms’ hens eat a variety of seasonal and local vegetables, and even critters they see roaming through the pasture. They also get a supplemental feed for protein.
“Our supplemental feed is developed by an animal nutritionist, ensuring the girls receive all the nutrients they need to support their health, active lifestyles and overall well-being,” she said.
A golden yolk may mean a richer flavor, but it also might mean that the egg is significantly more nutritious than your standard egg, which already packs the nutrients.
More research needs to be conducted to determine exactly how much more nutritious pasture-raised eggs are compared to other types of eggs — and actually conducting this research is tough without USDA regulation — but registered dietitian Tracy Lockwood Beckerman said there’s reason to believe we get more bang for our buck from a nutrition perspective when we eat pasture-raised eggs.
“It’s possible that pasture-raised eggs have more nutrients like vitamins A, D, E, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids when compared to conventional or standard eggs,” said Beckerman, author of the book “The Better Period Food Solution.” “That’s because the hens have more access to nutrients from grass, alfalfa and clover, as well as access to the sun, which can boost vitamin D levels, too. We can’t guarantee a cage-free or a standard/conventional egg has access to pastures or sunlight, so it’s safe to say that their nutritional values are not as dense as pasture-raised eggs.”
Because the term “pasture-raised” remains unregulated, it’s important to do your research before tossing a carton of pasture-raised eggs into your shopping cart without a second thought.
Many companies such as Vital Farms, Blue Sky Family Farms and Farmers Hen House have thorough explanations of how their hens are raised on their websites. If pasture-raised eggs are sold at your local farmers market, you can ask the farmer for details. But if you can’t easily access that kind of information for a brand that claims to be pasture-raised, it may not be worth the splurge.
Are Conventional Eggs Still Worth It?
As humane, nutrient-dense and environmentally friendly as pasture-raised eggs may be, they still cost several dollars more than your standard carton of eggs. But Bogden insists that the price is worth it.
“My favorite saying has always been ‘pay your farmer or pay your pharmacist,’” she said. “You are what your animal eats. The goal should be to eat fresh, nutrient-dense eggs from chickens who were not cooped up in filthy living conditions eating food they were never meant to eat.”
That being said, if pasture-raised eggs are out of your price range, rest assured that eggs are still a nutritional gold mine no matter what. So don’t completely remove eggs from your diet if you can’t afford the pasture-raised variety.
“Eggs are a nutritional home run, providing high-quality amino acids, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to the body,” Beckerman said. “Eggs are an excellent source of key nutrients that we may be lacking in our everyday diet, such as vitamin B12, biotin and choline. Eggs are one of the only foods that naturally contain vitamin D, which is critical for immune support, hormone regulation and bone strength. We should all opt to incorporate more eggs in our diet.”
The moral of the story? Eggs are great for you, regardless of what the hens are fed or how they’re raised. But if you can afford pasture-raised eggs, you’re not only making the more humane, environmentally-friendly choice — you’re also probably making the best choice for your health.