The egg section of the grocery store can be an overwhelming place: Stacks of egg cartons are decorated with not only a myriad of labels and certifications but also smiling farmers and happy hens declaring their wares the best and tastiest. It’s easy to get dazed by the dozens of options. Here we break down the egg-buying experience and tell you what you shouldn’t sweat, what could matter depending on your personal preferences, and what all the labels mean.
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- Eggshell Color: While the most common shell colors are white and brown, you can find blue or even green eggs in some cartons. The good news: There’s no nutritional or flavor difference between them, so pick whichever suits your fancy.
- Grades: Grade AA is the freshest egg you can get, but since it takes time to get eggs from farm to store, you’ll mostly find Grade A on grocery shelves. Grading also indicates the quality of the egg shell, with blemished or misshapen eggs given a lesser grade. Grade B eggs are often sent to food-processing facilities to be made into other egg products, and it’s unlikely you’ll find them at the grocery store.
- Farm Fresh: This term is not regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), so unless you’re picking up eggs from a local farmer or out from under hens, this label doesn’t mean anything.
- Hormone-Free: This label doesn’t mean anything either. “It’s illegal to give chickens hormones,” says Bourassa. “So yes, they’re hormone-free, but they all are.”
- Vegetarian Fed: This means that the hens are fed only vegetarian feed; this doesn’t affect the flavor or nutritional value of the eggs, but it could be less than ideal for chickens since they are natural omnivores. Feeding chickens a vegetarian diet "is actually not the best thing for their digestive system,” Bourassa says.
Pay Attention to These.
- Omega-3: This means that the hen’s feed contains omega-3 fatty acids, which could be in the form of fish oil, flaxseeds, or dehydrated alfalfa. Some people take omega-3 supplements to promote heart health.
- Pasteurized: Most eggs aren’t pasteurized and are just washed and sanitized per USDA regulations. This washing removes any bacteria and debris from the shell. Pasteurized eggs go through the additional step of being heated to kill bacteria such as salmonella. This can affect the protein structure of the egg white, which can in turn affect certain recipes that require stiff egg structure, such as angel food cake. Those who are wary of using eggs in raw applications (such as in Caesar salad dressing) might use pasteurized eggs, but they’re not the norm.
- Organic: This means that the farm has been certified as organic by the USDA. The USDA requirements include feeding hens organic, non–genetically modified feed; giving antibiotics only as needed; providing the hens with access to the outdoors; and using farming methods that “promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity.”
- Certified Humane: In order to be certified humane, a nongovernmental third-party auditor checks to make sure that the hens are being treated humanely. Some requirements include providing access to perches and nest boxes, limiting flock density, and forbidding certain practices such as debeaking. Farmers are not required to provide outdoor access for the birds, but if they want a certified humane pasture-raised or free-range designation, they must meet further requirements.
Where Were the Hens Raised?
These labels can give you an idea of how the hens were raised but don’t necessarily tell you how the eggs will taste (factors such as freshness tend to matter more in terms of flavor).
- Cage-Free: This doesn’t necessarily mean that the hens are roaming across the countryside picking at bugs and flowers. “Cage-free means they’re not in a cage, but they’re probably in an aviary-type system, where they’re inside a large building but they don’t go outside,” says Bourassa.
- Free Range: The USDA stipulates free-range hens must have “continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. The outdoor area may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material.”
- Pasture Raised: “Pasture raised means [the hens] spend most of their life outside,” says Bourassa. However, this term is not regulated by the USDA, which means that unless it is accompanied by a Certified Humane designation (there is an additional, optional process for getting the pasture-raised label), the term doesn’t carry much weight.
- Unspecified: Maybe instead of deciphering the labels, you just run in, grab a generic, non-name-brand box of eggs, and go. So what’s the deal with these eggs? They are most likely from industrial egg farms such as Cal-Maine Foods, which is the top table egg producer in the United States, with 44.26 million laying hens in 15 different states. Cal-Maine’s laying facilities, most of which are cage-free, process 500,000 dozen eggs per hour.