All eggs sold in stores are grade A, so the “choice” of grade is a no-brainer. But these days, you’ll find plenty of other labels on eggs, intended to make you buy one particular product or another. Because the choices can be dizzying and unclear, it can be difficult to know what is best for your family. To help you sort things out, here are some terms and a little information about what each means—or doesn’t mean.
Organic. If an egg is US Department of Agriculture–certified
organic, the hens have not been given antibiotics and their feed is free of
pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals. But if the organic label carries a state agency’s name, the standards may be different.
No Antibiotics. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not allow routine use of
antibiotics, but they can be used if the chicken is ill. No antibiotics have been used if the eggs are part of the National Organic Program.
No Hormones. This terminology is meaningless because the FDA does not allow any hormone products in egg production. Every egg should already be hormone-free.
Natural or Naturally Raised. This label has no meaning other than what egg producers want it to mean.
Cage-free. Hens that provide these eggs are kept out of cages. They have access to food and water but are not necessarily allowed outdoors.
Free Range. These birds have access to the outdoors but still may be allowed only on concrete areas.
Pasture-raised. Hens in this category get part of their food from outdoor sources (eg, bugs, greens), which may increase some
vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids and reduce saturated
fats. There is no regulation on the use of this term.
Vegetarian-fed. The hens are fed only
vegetarian foods. Chickens are not naturally vegetarian; they enjoy the occasional grub or caterpillar.
Pasteurized Eggs. These eggs are heated just enough to destroy bacteria but not hot enough to cook them. They are increasingly found in supermarkets and are a good choice for people who are susceptible to infection (such as those undergoing
chemotherapy or who have
AIDS) or who like their eggs undercooked. Remember that the risk of infection from eggs these days is quite small and is almost completely eliminated if they are cooked adequately before eating.
Omega-3 Eggs. Producers of eggs carrying this label claim that their product has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which may be beneficial for
heart health and
brain development. However, they are not inspected by the FDA for their omega-3 content unless there is a complaint.
Animal Welfare Approved. This term is given to independent farmers whose hens are in small flocks of fewer than 500, spend all of their time outside in pesticide-free pastures, and are not fed animal by-products.
American Humane Certified. This category is similar to the previous one, but these hens also are not subjected to forced molting, which increases egg production.
United Egg Producers Certified. This term is applied to a coalition of egg producers with lower standards, such as each hen being provided space only equivalent to a letter-sized piece of paper.