Deciding what eggs to buy is enough to scramble even the most seasoned shopper.
Each carton proclaims it is the best–this one is organic, the one to the left comes from vegetarian-fed chickens, and the brown ones on the right claim they are “farm fresh.” But how do you know what all that chicken scratch actually means?
After staring glassy-eyed at the 15 different cartons in the refrigerated section we know most people are ready to pull the cheapest one and move on with the shopping list. But paying attention to the writing on the carton will help you buy more delicious, healthier, and better eggs.
The trick is actually understanding what all of that egg carton jargon means.
Getting Started in the World of Egg Shopping
Farm Revival put together this guide to help you crack the egg marketing code. (Sorry we’re not sorry about all the puns.)
The descriptors you’ll find on egg cartons can basically be broken down into three types:
Best of the Best Terms
These are the words that are most important to pinpoint and target before your eyes glaze over as you stand in front of the case. They may come with caveats but they are the most reliable terms and indicate the best and most natural conditions for the laying hens.
It Depends: Terms with Caveats
Sometimes words in this category can be helpful, but they often come with spin or caveats. These terms can often have nuanced definitions that may be more open-ended than the general public might believe.
Forget ’em: Nothing but Marketing Terms
These are terms you may as well ignore–most of the time, these descriptors are straight up misleading or could be used to describe almost any egg. At most, these terms are good for a wry chuckle in the egg aisle (lookin’ at you, ‘vegetarian fed’ eggs).
So let’s get cracking.
Best of the Best: Terms You Can Count On
You can feel comfortable relying on these words to give you a straightforward idea of what you are buying, and are often good indicators you are getting a good product.
These are going to be some top-notch eggs. While pasture-raised doesn’t have an “official” definition, it typically means chickens have access to grass where they can hunt gross bugs, which translate (fortunately) into delicious and nutrient-dense eggs.
It also means that these chickens usually get rotated around in a pasture, which means what is under their feet is constantly changing and they can stay healthier than other chickens. Unfortunately, these eggs aren’t available all year because chickens can’t be pastured in the winter (the cold kills all those delicious bugs, you see).
But at all other times of the year, you can trust a pasture-raised label to give you some of the best eggs available on the market.
While this is not as much of guarantee on delicious and nutritious eggs as pasture raised because the government controls the definition of what is “organic,” this label usually is something you can count on as well.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) sets rules and regulations for what egg (and other food item) sellers can call organic so you can be assured of a certain level of quality standards. But, because this is an administrative agency definition, it can change.
Successive government administrations have altered this definition, and recently, it has been watered down. For example, back in 2012, eggs marked with the USDA’s National Organic Program label were required to come from uncaged hens that were free to roam in their houses and had access to the outdoors (which could just mean a little enclosed porch).
Though the administration in 2016 sought to eliminate the porch loophole so organic eggs would have to come from chickens actually being allowed to go outside (not just on an enclosed porch) with a new rule, in 2017 the USDA axed the new rule.
All in all, these changes are not earth-shattering (shell-shattering?), but it’s important to understand that “organic” is a little bit of a moving target.
It Depends: Often Useful Terms with Caveats
These terms can sometimes help you make an educated decision about your egg purchase, but you have to think critically when you see these labels. Two eggs with the same label could be wildly different.
While this is another USDA-regulated term, there are a lot of gaps in the definition, even though having no cage seems pretty straightforward.
The eggs must be “produced by hens housed in some type of building or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.” As you may notice, however, there is no requirement for outdoor space, or even exactly how much space each chicken should have within the enclosed area.
As you can imagine, some farms take advantage of these gaps, so there is a huge variation in the quality of eggs that are labeled “cage free.”
Even though this sounds a lot like cage-free, the USDA defines it differently. It uses the same language as the definition of cage-free, but with the additional caveat that the hens have to have access to the outdoors.
However, once again, the USDA didn’t designate any sort of minimum or maximum size for the outdoor area.
Thus, this designation has a lot of the same problems as the cage-free label: there can be a big difference between two eggs that are both free range, because one could have come from a chicken with access to a small concrete porch, while another might be free to run around in a whole yard.
Eggs ‘Certified’ by Various Organizations
Several groups have stepped in to try to fill the gaps in the USDA’s regulations. But just like private certifications for anything, they vary widely and have different standards. Some you might see are United Egg Producers Certified, Food Alliance Certified, American Humane Certified, Certified Humane, or Animal Welfare Approved.
Each of these certifications adds on to USDA requirements: some fill the outdoor space size or type gap, some add prohibitions on “de-beaking” (a process whereby the farmers trim the beaks of their birds so they don’t peck each other), limit use of antibiotics, or certify that the chickens are kept under other certain conditions.
However, sometimes, the different certifying organizations can be more lax than others. Make sure you pull out your phone and do a quick search to understand what kind of certifying organization you are dealing with before you grab the carton off the shelf so you can understand what is required before a farmer can get their designation.
Forget ’em: Nothing but Marketing Terms
You can pretty much ignore these if you see them on a carton. As we explain, these words are almost completely unhelpful when trying to figure out if you are picking a good egg.
As some of you may remember from grade school, there are some animals that are meat-eaters (carnivores), some that are grass-eaters (herbivores), and some that are both (omnivores).
Knowing that chickens are omnivores explains pretty quickly why vegetarian-fed chickens is not a thing it makes sense to brag about. Chickens, like all omnivores, are designed to eat both meat and grass or grain, which means that in order to be healthy, they cannot only eat one or the other.
Especially when vegetarian-fed is often mostly just code for chickens fed only chicken feed, without access to any other source of food. Chickens need to eat bugs and other creepy crawlies to have a balanced diet.
And without a balanced diet, the chickens can’t produce nutritious and delicious eggs. Pass on the fake science–this label is a rotten egg.
This label is pretty much meaningless. Farm fresh could be fresh from a small mom and pop farm, or fresh from a factory farm.
Clever marketers capitalize on the fact that when most people think of a farm, they think of a peaceful place with a red barn and cute tractors. In reality, there are a number of different kinds of farms, and some of them are not as good for chickens as others (and many are far from cute).
Buying “farm-fresh” eggs doesn’t guarantee you anything more than exactly what it says, and that is no guarantee of quality, as you can probably imagine.
No Hormones or Antibiotic Free Eggs
This is marketers again capitalizing on what most shoppers don’t know: using added hormones on poultry in the US is actually illegal. And it’s not a new thing, either: hormone use in poultry production was banned in the United States in the 1950s.
While chickens have gotten bigger over the last almost 70 years, this has everything to do with breeding, feeding, and chicken-growing environments, and nothing to do with adding growth hormones (because even if it was legal, would be difficult and expensive to do because of chicken physiology).
So all eggs are hormone free (minus naturally occurring ones, of course). It’s like things like raisins being marked gluten-free. All raisins are naturally gluten free, so that label is not particularly helpful in differentiating between raisin quality. Same thing here: no matter what eggs you buy, they will not have added hormones.
The “antibiotic-free” designation is similar–while it is not illegal to use antibiotics on poultry in the US, there are only three antibiotics that are even allowed to be used in egg-laying flocks.
Also, it is estimated that only a small percentage of egg-laying birds receive antibiotics because more birds are vaccinated and farmers of all kinds are using other management practices that minimize the need for antibiotics to treat illness. Thus, while not all eggs will be antibiotic free, the grand majority of them are not from birds that are pumped up with drugs: only a small percentage of birds ever have to get antibiotics, and when they are administered, it is by a vet usually only for a short period of time.
So this designation isn’t helpful to use when shopping, either: it actually applies to most eggs.
This is another label that is incredibly unhelpful. While the natural label, similar to farm-fresh, paints an idyllic picture of the mom and pop farm with a red barn and cute tractor, natural does not necessarily mean that the chickens grow in a natural environment.
All it means is that a chicken laid it.
And until there are a bunch of robot chickens laying eggs, all eggs you will find will be natural. While you have to give it to the marketers for taking obvious things and making them sound amazing, don’t be fooled with this designation.
Odds and Ends: Other Things to Keep in Mind
Now that we’ve decoded all of the chicken scratch, here are a couple of other helpful tips when buying eggs.
Egg sizes range from peewee to jumbo, with large, extra-large and jumbo being the most common. Pick one that suits you, but if you’re going to be doing anything other than making them on their own, stick with large size eggs–most recipes are formulated for that size (but using a different size won’t ruin your batch of cookies).
Also watch the size with the price: you may see cheaper eggs, but they may be medium rather than large, so you might not actually be saving any money because you’re getting less eggy bang for your buck.
Shell Color of Eggs
There is a widespread misconception that brown eggs are better for you than white eggs, but this is another instance where conventional wisdom is a bit off.
The truth is that an egg’s shell makes no difference to the freshness, taste or nutrition.
It’s just genetics. Buy brown if you like, but it won’t make much difference in terms of getting a better egg.
Grade of Eggs
Everyone wants Grade A for everything, from high school biology to eggs and milk. But looking for Grade A eggs won’t help you tell the difference between eggs at the store.
Most eggs sold in retail outlets are graded A, which means they met the requirements with respect to the overall quality of the white, the yolk and the cleanliness of the shell at the time of packing. This isn’t going to help in deciding between two different brands.
Our Recommendations and Favorite Tips to Follow
Now that we’ve done all the hard work of learning what’s what in the egg aisle, it’s time for the good stuff. These are our best tips and tricks to make sure you get the best eggs possible for you and your family.
At this point, you are now armed with everything you need to know in order to make sense of the egg section at the grocery store. But if you want our recommendations, here is a quick cheat-sheet for what to look for:
Pastured is Best!
Done right, pasture raised eggs are the best you can get.
These chickens are in their natural habitat and have a diverse diet, which ensures both nutrient-dense and delicious eggs. You can look for chickens that are rotated on pasture (usually integrated into other operations like grass-fed beef production).
If possible, it is easiest to know what you’re getting when shopping local.
Not everyone has the luxury of seeing a hand-painted “Fresh Eggs” sign on the side of the road on their way to work, but oftentimes, even in big cities, you can come by eggs that were raised not far from where you live.
Friends and family are great resources here:
Someone you know may have a good idea of where you could get great eggs. You get to help a farmer and support the local community, rather than send your dollars to a mega farm in who-knows-where.
Social Media is a Great Tool!
We don’t mean see who is tweeting about buying eggs. If you’re not sure if the farm you heard of is all it’s cracked up to be, check out the farm’s social media and website.
Look for farms that are proud of their animals and are comfortable showing how they are raised (not staged photos).
A lot of farms are active on Instagram, so you can see what their animals look like (and bonus, they often have baby animal pictures that can really brighten your day).