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How to Buy the Best Eggs For You-Egg Buying Guide

How eggs are defined infographic

Egg Shell Color

In stores, eggshells are primarily found in white or brown colors, but their nutritional value is generally the same regardless of the shell color. The color difference is due to the hen’s breed: white-feathered hens typically lay white eggs, while brown-feathered hens lay brown eggs. The main nutritional content of eggs remains consistent unless they are specialty eggs, like those enriched with Omega-3. Hens can produce eggs in various colors, including blue and green, though supermarkets mostly stock white and brown eggs. Brown eggs are often more expensive, not due to higher nutritional value, but because of the higher production costs associated with the hens that lay them, as noted by the USDA.

different colored eggs stock photo

Egg Grade

Consumers can choose from different egg grades, which reflect the egg’s internal quality and shell condition. Egg packers may label their products as “Grade AA” or “Grade A,” or they might opt for the USDA grading service that assesses factors like plant cleanliness, egg processing, storage temperatures, and egg quality. Eggs meeting these criteria may display the USDA Grade Shield and are graded as AA, A, or B. Jen Houchins, PhD, RD, from the American Egg Board’s Egg Nutrition Center, notes that retail eggs must be at least Grade B. While Grade B are nutritionally sound, they’re often used in food service due to their lower appearance quality, with most supermarkets carrying Grade AA or A.

Egg grades infographic

Egg Size and Nutritional Value

In stores, egg sizes range from small to jumbo, determined by total weight per dozen rather than individual dimensions. While size doesn’t influence egg quality, nutritional content slightly varies with size. Eggs are a cost-effective, nutrient-rich food, providing high-quality protein and essential nutrients like B vitamins, selenium, vitamins A, D, E, K, and choline, crucial for brain health. Additionally, they contain important antioxidants, offering various health benefits as noted in a Nutrients journal review from October 2015.

Egg Nutrition facts infographic

Conventional Eggs

Egg labels in supermarkets, such as ‘cage-free,’ ‘pasture-raised,’ ‘free-range,’ and ‘organic,’ indicate the farming methods used and not significant nutritional differences, unless the feed is specially fortified. These labels are important to consumers concerned with farming practices and hen welfare. According to the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of California standard supermarket eggs, often the most budget-friendly, typically come from hens raised in cages and fed a diet mainly consisting of corn and soybean, supplemented with vitamins and minerals. The choice often reflects personal preferences regarding animal welfare and environmental impact.

Egg Nutrition facts infographic by size

Cage-Free Eggs

In larger grocery stores, you’ll typically see egg choices beyond the caged or conventional ones — and cage-free are a common option. When this voluntary claim is used on eggs that possess the USDA Grade Shield, strict quality and labeling standards must be met.

To qualify for the cage-free label, laying hens:

  • must live within indoor buildings, such as barns or other free-range pens
  • must be allowed to exhibit natural behaviors including having areas to scratch, perch and nest
  • have unlimited access to food, water and litter
  • must be protected from predators
stock photo of cracked eggs

Free-Range Eggs

Free-range is another popular option in grocery stores, especially when they come with the USDA Grade Shield, which means they have to fulfill specific requirements.

Free-range hens are provided with:

Indoor housing that offers ample space to move freely, constant access to food and water, and ongoing access to the outdoors during their egg-laying cycle. Besides their regular grain feed, these hens might also have the opportunity to forage, adding insects and wild plants to their diet. However, it’s important to note that the USDA’s free-range standards do not ensure that the hens actually spend time outdoors or consume natural forage.

chicken stock photo

Pasture-Raised Eggs

The designation “pasture-raised” isn’t overseen by the USDA, but instead, it’s defined by an external certification from Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC). HFAC offers guidance to consumers about choosing products based on animal welfare practices on farms.

For eggs to be labeled both free-range and pasture-raised, and to feature the HFAC seal, they must meet certain criteria, including access to an outdoor area with living vegetation. Products meeting these standards can also display the “Certified Humane Raised and Handled” logo.

An added benefit of pasture-raised is their potential nutritional superiority. According to a study published in the January 2021 edition of ACS Food Science and Technology, these eggs may contain higher levels of antioxidants, vitamin A, and omega-3 fatty acids.

community supported agriculture (CSA)

Organic Eggs

Organic eggs are commonly available in most grocery stores. The USDA typically doesn’t have many regulations concerning the diet of egg-laying hens, but for certified organic hens, there are specific guidelines.

Under the USDA’s National Organic Program, which sets standards for organic food production including organic eggs, hens that lay organic are required to:

  • Consume feed composed of certified organic ingredients.
  • Have access to outdoor space.

It’s important to note that ‘organic’ does not automatically mean more nutritious than non-organic. A study published in the December 2017 edition of Nutrition and Food Technology indicates limited research comparing organic and conventional eggs, with some studies showing varying results.

Vegetarian-Fed Eggs

At the grocery store, you might come across an egg carton labeled vegetarian-fed. These come from hens that have been fed a diet free from animal byproducts. However, this doesn’t automatically imply that they are of superior quality.

According to  Kristen Smith, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and founder of 360 Family Nutrition, there is minimal research indicating that eggs from hens on a vegetarian diet are more nutritious than those from hens on a standard feed diet. Nonetheless, the diet of hens can be a significant factor for certain consumers when shopping.

Enriched Eggs

​​Although the nutrient content of most eggs is relatively consistent regardless of the housing conditions of the hens, the quality can be altered by modifying their feed, explains Moe Schlachter, RDN, a representative of the Texas Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and president of Houston Family Nutrition.

Schlachter notes, “A hen could be fed a diet enriched with vitamin E, and naturally, the hen’s metabolism would deposit more vitamin E into its eggs to create vitamin E-enriched eggs.”

In agreement, Houchins states,”The only way to produce eggs with higher levels of nutrients is by feeding the hens that lay the eggs a diet of nutritionally fortified feed. In such cases, the eggs are marketed as nutrient- or nutritionally enhanced, and their packaging will specify nutrient content.”

Additionally, the enrichment of hen feed with certain nutrients can boost antioxidant levels and intensify the yolk color, as per a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Food Technology.

Claims to Ignore

Be aware of labels that lack an official definition or seem designed to mislead consumers, as they often don’t hold any real significance. The USDA has not legally defined several terms commonly seen on egg cartons, such as:

  • “animal-friendly”
  • “free-roaming”
  • “happy hens”
  • “farm fresh”
  • “natural”
  • “hormone-free”
  • “no added antibiotics”

“These terms, though often linked with the idea of healthier eggs, actually don’t have any substantial meaning in the context of egg labeling,” remarks Schlachter.

Moreover, consumers should be skeptical of the “hormone-free” label. The description ‘hormone-free’ is merely a marketing tactic. It’s a moot point since hormones are not legally permitted in poultry farming.

Similarly, the claim “no added antibiotics” is not particularly noteworthy. The FDA rigorously controls the use of antibiotics in laying hens and prohibits the sale of eggs that contain antibiotic residues, making this claim less exceptional than it might seem.

Tips for Egg Freshness

Ever curious about the significance of the numbers on your egg carton? When you see the USDA Grade Shield on an egg carton, it includes a lot number, which is a key indicator of the products freshness.

These dates are in a three-digit format, starting from 001 (representing January 1) to 365 (indicating December 31). According to USDA guidelines, eggs remain good in your fridge for 4 to 5 weeks past this date. It’s important to note that “Sell By” or “Use By” dates are not mandatory on egg packaging.

So, What Are the Best Eggs to Buy?

Navigating the various claims and information on egg cartons can be overwhelming, but there are ways to make your egg-buying decision easier.

Looking for the USDA Grade Shield on egg labels is a good practice. A carton with this shield meets established standards for quality, although this doesn’t necessarily mean they are more nutritious than other egg types.

It’s important to remember that more expensive ones are not automatically better. The cost difference between egg types often reflects the farming methods used rather than their nutritional value.

The best approach is to decide based on your intended use, your personal preferences, and your budget.

If animal welfare is important to you, then free-range or pasture-raised might be a preferable choice, despite their higher cost.

For those seeking enhanced nutritional value, enriched eggs, which have added nutrients, would be the best option.

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