Cage-free. Free-range. Pasteurized. Pasture-raised. If you include eggs as a part of your balanced diet, you may find the many labels on egg cartons to be confusing.
"There's an array of terms egg producers can use--some refer to the egg itself, others refer to the conditions the hens are kept in or what they are fed," says Cali Kent, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and the Supervisor of Clinical Dietetics at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. "Knowing how to decipher these carton labels helps consumers make informed decisions in line with their culinary preferences as well as any ethical concerns about where their food comes from."
"Several factors affect egg size," Kent says. "They include the hen's age, weight and breed, as well as the quality of its diet and living conditions. Stress, high temperatures and cramped spaces can result in smaller eggs." The size of egg you choose can be based on personal preference, cost, availability or if you have a recipe that calls for a certain size of egg. Here are common egg sizes and their corresponding weight-per-dozen-eggs:
Small: 18 oz.
Medium: 21 oz.
Large: 24 oz.
X-Large: 27 oz.
Jumbo: 30 oz.
"The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a three-level grading scale for eggs, based on an examination of the egg's interior and exterior," Kent says. "For instance, with the highest grade, AA, the egg white should be firm and thick, the yolk without blemish and the shell clean and without cracks." Right underneath that is grade A--the standards are the same as AA, but with slight differences, such as a thinner egg white. Eggs with the lowest grade, Grade B, usually have spots in the yolk, the thinnest whites and flawed shells, but are still edible.
As more and more people have become invested in where their food comes from, these designations are meant to guide their buying decisions:
Conventional/standard: This means hens are housed in small cages with no time spent outside, and feed is given on a regular schedule.
Enriched colony: "This system has been growing in use as what some deem a more humane alternative to traditional egg farms," Kent says. "Instead of conventional cages that don't allow chickens room to move, enriched colony cages are spacious enough for hens to scratch, nest and perch. However, the hens don't go outside."
Cage-free: "The next stage up from conventional and enriched colony, cage-free means the chickens roam throughout the barn, with continual access to food and water, but they stay indoors," Kent says.
Free-range: "These chickens can go outside when they want, and there may be some more space per hen indoors," Kent says. "Because the hens spend time outdoors they can forage for food, such as plants or worms, to supplement their feed."
Pasture-raised: This is a lot like it sounds--hens roam outside on specially maintained land and can eat a variety of plants, grasses and insects in addition to chicken feed. "In a way, it's the opposite of free-range, where hens can go outside at will--pasture-raised birds spend most of their time outdoors and go inside when needed, such as at nighttime," Kent says.
"There are terms that serve more of a marketing purpose than anything," Kent says. "Take 'all-natural'--all eggs are considered natural. 'Farm fresh' is another label that doesn't mean anything in particular. Also, don't be concerned if a carton says its eggs are hormone or antibiotic free. It's illegal to give hormones to egg-laying hens and antibiotics are only used on sick hens, and those hens usually don't produce eggs."
However, there are some labels to take note of. "Pasteurized' eggs have been heated to destroy bacteria," Kent says. "If a carton is labeled 'organic,' those eggs meet the USDA certified organic standards. 'Vegetarian fed' usually means the hens have eaten all-grain feed with no animal byproducts, and omega-3 enriched eggs are from hens that were given feed that included flax, marine algae, fish oils, and other ingredients to boost the level of omega-3 fatty acid in their eggs.”
Some cartons have labels noting the producers' humane methods. Among them: Certified Humane Raised & Handled, American Humane Certified and United Egg Producers Certified. "These are issued by different organizations with detailed standards for the care and feeding of hens," Kent says. For more information on the organizations and their guidelines, click here.
Did You Know?
Brown eggs aren't the result of a hen's feed or the condition of its barn--they're produced by hens with red earlobes and white shell eggs are laid by hens with white lobes, with some exceptions based on breed. There's no difference in quality based on the color of the eggshell.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.