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The Real Meaning Behind 8 Egg Carton Labels Explained

The labeling on the food items we buy can be quite misleading sometimes. For example, a box of cookies in the supermarket might claim they are a “great source of calcium”, but very conveniently fail to mention that they are also loaded with sugar. Similarly, the eggs section in the grocery store can be quite confusing for many of us. The various labels we see on the egg cartons – from ‘organic’ and ‘vegetarian’ to ‘cage-free’ and ‘pasture-raised’ – can leave us scratching our heads.
We generally go for the most affordable or the healthiest option while buying eggs, but the seemingly endless terms on the cartons may not actually mean what they say. What most of us might not know is that egg labeling is determined by the space, diet, and outdoor access granted to the hens laying the eggs. So, there's more to the labeling on those cartons than you might realize. Here, we have attempted to decode some of the commonly-hyped terms we find today on egg carton labels to help make your egg purchasing a little easier the next time.

1. Pasture-Raised

Egg Carton Labels, Pasture-Raised
When we read the term ‘pasture-raised’ on an egg carton, we generally assume that the chickens that produced these eggs live happily on a farm. That’s not completely untrue. Pasture-raised means that the hens have to spend all or a part of their lives in a pasture. It also implies that they’ve grazed naturally and haven’t been fed facility-administered foods.
According to the standards set by independent agencies like Certified Humane and American Humane, pasture-raised eggs require hens to spend their days outdoors in natural grasses and only come into their coops at night for shelter or safety. The hens must also have access to water, shade, and other necessities. That being said, there’s no government-defined yet rule for producers to follow when they claim their products are pasture-raised. 

2. Farm Fresh

Egg Carton Labels, Farm Fresh
A ‘Farm Fresh’ label on an egg carton makes us feel as if the eggs have been freshly raised on a lush green farm by your local farmer and delivered to the store just a few hours back. However, experts say that this term means nothing at all and is used by producers as a ploy to make the eggs sound more appetizing. So, unless you are buying your eggs directly from a farm, this label has no substance and these eggs are, well… just eggs. 

3. Free-Range

Egg Carton Labels, Free-Range
Image source: YouTube
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), free-range eggs come from hens that have “continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle.” This definition, though, means that the hens can be housed in a building, a room, or some area that can range from a small porch to huge barns. The USDA also specifies that the outdoor area for free-range hens may be “fenced and/or covered with netting-like material”. Furthermore, the Certified Humane program states that free-range hens must have at least 2 square feet (288 square inches) of outdoor space.
As of now, there’s no evidence to suggest whether free-range eggs are better or more nutritional than the other varieties.

4. Cage-Free

Egg Carton Labels, Cage-Free
Image source: YouTube
‘Cage-free’, as the term implies, means that the hens aren’t raised in cages. This immediately makes us think that the chickens are happily roaming around on a farm while feeding on corn kernels. While it’s true that cage-free hens aren’t raised in cages, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they live meonily in a spacious hay-filled farm. For all we know, large flocks of these chickens might be cramped together in an outdoor setting with barely any space to move around freely or go outside. Generally, though, cage-free hens are kept inside large, windowless sheds and are allowed to walk around and scratch at the floor. Also, they are usually given a 100% corn-based diet.
Unfortunately, there’s no clear definition of what exactly a cage-free system should look like or how much space each hen will get. The USDA states that cage-free hens must have “the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle”. However, more research needs to be made on the health of cage-free birds to understand if they are truly safe and healthy in their living environment.

5. All-Natural

Egg Carton Labels, All-Natural
Image source: YouTube
Much like ‘Farm Fresh’, ‘All-Natural’ is more of a marketing gimmick. It conjures images in our minds that these chickens have a “natural” diet. But it’s basically just stating the obvious – that the egg is a real one that has come from a chicken. That’s about it. So, don’t end up believing that an ‘All-Natural’ egg will be extra fresh or more natural than the other eggs you see in the grocery. A better sign of how fresh an egg is would be the grade it is certified with. Watch this video to understand the Difference Between Grade AA, A, and B Eggs

6. Certified Organic

Egg Carton Labels, Certified Organic
Image source: Reddit
According to the USDA, ‘Certified Organic’ eggs must come from free-range hens. Furthermore, the eggs must originate from a source flock that is fed an organic (usually grains and forages), vegetarian, and pesticide-free diet. This means that the birds should not be fed manure, poultry by-products, or any animal drugs. Also, the chickens must be given year-round access to the outdoors and can only be confined in a shelter for environmental or health reasons. For people who prefer their foods to be completely organic, these eggs are a good choice.

7. Omega-3 Enriched

Egg Carton Labels, Omega-3 Enriched
The label ‘Omega-3 Enriched’ on an egg carton typically means that the hens are fed a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids (mostly flax seeds or fish oil).  But simply eating the ‘Omega-3 Enriched’ eggs won’t mean that you will get the sufficient requirement of omega-3 your body needs. According to Canadian nutritionist Leslie Beck, “eggs can be fortified with two different omega-3 fatty acids: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)”. While DHA is found in oily fish like salmon, trout, and sardine, ALA is abundant in flaxseed, flax oil, chia seeds, hemp oil, walnuts, and walnut oil. Beck says that one omega-3 egg typically contains “340 milligrams of ALA and 75 to 100 milligrams of DHA”. 
Since there’s no official recommended intake for DHA or ALA, you can’t just depend on the omega-3 enriched eggs. It’s always better to include foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids in your diet like fatty fish, or flax seeds, walnuts, and chia seeds to get their full benefits of the fatty acids. 

8. Vegetarian

Egg Carton Labels, Vegetarian
Image source: YouTube

This is perhaps the most confusing egg label because chickens are natural omnivores and aren’t vegetarians. Bugs, worms, and insects, along with plants are a part of their natural diet. So, the egg cartons with the labels "Vegetarian-Fed Chickens" or "Vegetarian Diet” mean that the chickens have only been fed a vegetarian diet. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. When chickens are given only a vegetarian diet, it means the birds are being forcefully kept away from their natural diet and might become weak or even fall ill. It also means that the birds are likely never kept outdoors, as they might end up eating some bugs or insects, and are thus always kept in an indoor setting.  

See Also: The Incredible Health Benefits of Eggs

In conclusion, we can say that pasture-raised eggs are probably the healthiest type of eggs that you can buy from the stores. That’s because the hens that laid the eggs are allowed to roam outdoors and eat a more natural diet. Hence, these eggs are likely to be more nutritious. That doesn’t mean, however, that omega-3-enriched eggs or free-range, cage-free, or organic eggs aren’t healthy. Eggs, in general, are among the healthiest and most nutritious foods you can eat. Just be mindful of the labels on their cartons and don’t be swayed by any tall claims on them.

Share these facts with other egg lovers!

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