The Difference Between Pasture-Raised, Cage-Free & Free-Range Eggs
The egg isle at the grocery store can be confusing. There are just so many different labels.
With choices like Organic, Natural, Pasture-Raised, Cage-Free, Free-Range, Non-GMO, and Certified-Humane — how the heck are we supposed to know which to buy?!
That’s an eggcellent question.
Recently, I had a chance to chat with a member of the Vital Farms team, a network of 52 family-operated chicken farms nationwide, to get some answers.
Before I even jump into this mess of information – because there is a lot – I’d like to state that this post is not sponsored.
As an avid egg consumer, I’ve had a lot of questions about where my eggs are coming from for a while now. I just so happened to get the opportunity to talk to an incredibly smart gal from Vital Farms, Aurora Porter (whose ideals I agree with), to answer them.
Let’s start with the labels.
According to Porter, “labels can be broadly divided into two categories – how the hens are treated (including their living conditions) and what they are fed.
Of course there is some overlap – the USDA Organic designation of free-range is supposed to include specific provisions for the amount of outdoor space the hens are provided, but as a rule, it’s better to look for a 3rd party verification with regards to evaluating how the birds are kept.
USDA Certified Organic: means that the feed that the chickens are provided with (in addition to whatever else they may eat – which is contingent on their living habitat) has been certified through every step – from production to storage – as being organic and free of chemical pesticides. This now also includes an exclusion of GMO ingredients, so USDA Organic includes a Non-GMO provision, and so is the superior measure.
Natural: The term ‘natural’ has no definition and no regulation, so it’s all but meaningless.
For the terms used to describe living conditions, the three most common are cage-free, free-range and pasture-raised. In general, these terms have little definitive meaning unless paired with a 3rd party auditors seal – such as Certified Humane. In general however, they might be described as follows:
Cage-free: Birds live in large colony houses, with many thousands of birds to a house. While not restricted to small cages, birds have minimal space in which to move and no access to outdoor areas. There are typically perches and dust areas provided in the houses, but living conditions are cramped and poor. A certified cage-free operation will adhere to higher standards than an uncertified one.
Free-range: as a term adopted from European farms, where EU regulations proscribe rigorous standards, allowing for over 54 sqft of outdoor space per bird, free-range in the US has become a poor facsimile. Generally not significantly different from cage-free houses, free-range houses are differentiated by a small degree of outdoor access being provided to the hens. In practice, this outdoor space may consist of no more than a dirt or mud enclosed space, access to which is through small ‘pop-holes’ which discourages use by predator-wary hens. Again, some operations do genuinely provide meaningful access and space, but these are the exception, not the norm.
Pasture-raised: this is distinguished from the other terms as being a wholly outdoor-based system. Birds may live in small houses – either mobile or fixed – to which they can return at will (for example to lay) and are secured in at night (for protection). Otherwise, they are free to roam on vegetation-covered pastures.
The amount of space provided for each bird on a correctly operated, pasture-raised farm works out to over 108 sqft each (1000 birds for every 2.5 acres). This number has been calculated by soil management studies as being the minimum amount that allows for a constant source of dietary vegetation on pastures rotated regularly, to ensure that any potential parasite life-cycles are interrupted, keeping both the hens and the land healthy.
On such a system, birds are able to forage a significant portion of their dietary requirements from naturally occurring plants and invertebrates, reducing their dependency on the provided feed.”
In addition to the natural vegetation, pasture-raised hens derive about half of their daily intake from supplemental feed, consisting of corn and unprocessed soybean oil. Usually this is Organic/Non-GMO, but you must check the labels to make sure.
One more thing to note, Aurora told me that there is no nutritional difference between white and brown eggs. The color is determined based on the breed of the bird.
For animal lovers, the treatment of hens may be reason enough to switch to pasture-raised. However, advocates of pasture-raised eggs also tout their nutritional benefits. Aurora told me that the eggs from pasture-raised hens are higher in vitamins and amino acids, and lower in cholesterol and saturated fat.
“Constant exposure to sunlight and clean air, helps maintain healthier flocks and improved physiologies, both of which have been shown to contribute to significantly more nutritious eggs,” said Aurora. “For example, [some pasture-raised eggs have] up to six times the amount of vitamin D of a caged egg.”
Pasture-raised eggs are also supposedly tastier because of the way the hens are raised.
I compared the Vital Farms’ Alfreso Eggs carton with the regular “Farm Fresh” eggs I buy from Trader Joes, and I couldn’t see much of a difference in the nutritional info listed. However, when put to a taste test, the pasture-raised eggs definitely tasted a little better.
First, I compared the whites. There wasn’t too much of a difference here, but I did notice that the pasture-raised eggs were a little more velvety.
Next, I made fried eggs to compare the yolks. Immediately, you could tell the pasture-raised egg yolks were a much richer orange color.
I’m so used to eating just the whites that I usually wouldn’t notice the difference. But when tasted side by side, the yolk in the regular egg actually tasted a little bitter and sour to me. Ick.
Anyway, I’m not here to get on a soap box and tell you that regular eggs are bad or that they’re going to kill you. I’m just presenting the facts as they are and providing you with the tools to break through the eggocracy surrounding egg terminology.
Whether you want to pay $6 a carton for eggs or not is up to you. Like I said, I usually buy the $1.75 carton from Trader Joes. However, this little experiment may have swayed me.
If you want to taste test them yourself though and make a decision, I can be of some service.
***The first three readers to tweet about today’s post will win two coupons for Vital Eggs’ Alfresco Eggs (valued at about $5.99 a dozen), which you can pick up at your local Vons/Pavillions etc.***
Have an eggceptional weekend everyone!