Pasture-Raised Egg Health Benefits vs. Free-Range & Cage-Free

Supermarkets… a place where you can get overwhelmed by the endless variety of products and goods. Eggs are one such example. Organic? Pasture-raised? Brown? Cage-free? Which carton should you be grabbing? Well, we are here to help you demystify the world of eggs. Let’s first start off with defining common labels found on egg cartons.

Pasture Raised Eggs Benefits

Egg Carton Label Definitions

Farm-Fresh: this label is more of a marketing play with little substance. Most eggs in large supermarket chains have a time frame of 2 to 7 days from lay date to store shelves. It is unlikely to be longer due to the large volume of eggs involved in such operations and the limited amount of space that the farm and supermarket would have to store the eggs.

All-Natural: according to the Consumer Report, the use of the word ‘natural’ is another marketing ploy to reel in unaware consumers. Take this label with a grain of salt.

Hormone-Free: another meaningless label. According to the US Poultry & Egg Association, egg-laying hens are not given hormones. Some egg cartons may have hormone-free labels, but in actuality, this label applies to all eggs that come from commercial egg productions in the US.

Vegetarian-Fed: chickens aren’t vegetarians. This label is pretty much an indication that the chicken did not have access to an outdoor environment and was not fed a healthy diet. Fun fact. Did you know that keeping chickens is a great way of controlling garden pests? Insects and worms form an important part of a chicken’s natural diet.

Cage-Free: back in 2014, a study estimated that 95% of eggs in the US were harvested from hens living in battery cages. On average, hens living in battery cages are given about 67 square inches of space. This sadly leaves little to no room for the hen to move around or to spread their wings.

Cage-free indicates that the hens are not subjected to as harsh of an environment. Cage-free hens are generally offered the space to move and spread their wings. This, however, does not mean they get to see the outdoors. Most cage-free hens live in very large flocks and this could result in very poor living conditions (e.g. cramped space, poor air quality). Cage-free is an improvement but should by no means be seen as the golden standard.

Organic: according to the USDA, eggs marked with an organic label must come from uncaged hens that are free to roam and have access to outdoor spaces. The hens must also be fed “an organic diet of feed produced without conventional pesticide or fertilizers”. Of all the labels we explained so far, organic is the most promising but the definition of outdoor space is a bit iffy.

Pasture-Raised Eggs vs. Free-Range Eggs

We are now left with two other common labels, pasture-raised and free-range. According to the USDA, free-range means that the hens must be allowed access outside.

Access, however, is somewhat of an ambiguous term. Free-range does not necessarily mean that the hens have constant access to an outdoor space. According to Mark Kastel, founder of the Cornucopia Institute, the outdoor space may simply consist of a small screen area for thousands of birds. Unfortunately, without strict regulations, a lot of these terms are going to be abused by some commercial farming operations.

This leaves us with pasture-raised eggs. In theory, pasture-raised refers to hens that are given access to an outdoor space (of at least 108 square feet per bird) where they can feed on grass, insects, worms, or anything else they come across in the dirt. These hens are let out from the barn at dawn then brought back in at dusk. In theory, pasture-raised eggs offer the most ethical choice for consumers. However, as we mentioned before, these terms are not strictly regulated by the FDA so, as a consumer, it is important to do our due diligence.

While we have expressed a lot of skepticism around these terms, keep in mind that there are some farmers out there that stay true to the meaning of terms (like free-range) and ensure their hens are living in a humane environment. Ultimately, it comes down to you, as a consumer, to do your research and understand whether your farm of choice is operating in an ethical way.

Benefits of Pasture Eggs

Back in 2008, Mother Earth News conducted a study on the types of benefits that pasture-raised eggs could provide. Compared to commercially-raised eggs, they found that the eggs of hens raised on pasture have:

Where to Find Pasture Eggs

Your best bet to finding true free-range/pasture-raised eggs is to check out local farms that maintain such practices. That way, you can actually see it in person and see how much happier the hens are compared to the images you may come across online of hens living in battery cages.

if your only logical option of getting pasture-raised eggs is to get them at the supermarket then be sure to do some research online. Many farms are happy to provide more details on how they operate. Eat Wild is a good starting point for finding pasture-based farmers. Happier hens lay healthier eggs!

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