Unless you get your eggs from a local farm or your parents’ really nice neighbors with chickens, you’ve likely been perplexed by all the different terminology crammed onto a supermarket egg carton.
Eggs, which seem like the most ubiquitous, uniform commodity at the store, are by the far the most confusing things to buy. But you know what? We are going to decode this stuff, right here and now. So the next time you go to the store you’ll know exactly which eggs you want to buy.
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Egg Carton Information to Ignore
Not everything on an egg carton is important, so let’s start by running through some of the labeling that you can feel free to disregard when you’re egg shopping.
Brown: Whether brown or white (or even green or blue), the color of an egg’s shell has zero to do with the egg within. Brown eggs simply contain a pigment in their shells that white eggs do not.
Farm fresh: This term is not regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and is thus meaningless. (But of course, do buy eggs fresh from local farmers and your neighbors.)
Grade A: At the supermarket, virtually all the eggs are Grade A. AA eggs are the freshest, but you don’t find them at most groceries, and Bs end up in big processing facilities.
Hormone-free: This term applies to all eggs, because giving hormones to chickens is illegal.
The Most Important Labels on Your Egg Carton
So what about the terms that actually mean something? Here are the claims you should be looking for as you’re choosing which eggs to buy.
Organic: This term carries the weight of the USDA organic requirements, which include feeding hens organic, non–genetically modified feed; giving antibiotics only as needed; and providing the hens with access to the outdoors.
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 access to perches and nest boxes and limiting flock density.
Cage-Free: The hens are raised in a big building but not cages. Seeing this claim on the carton is crucial—the traditional cages are just way too small.
Free-range: These hens have continuous access to the outdoors. It doesn’t mean they spend time outside, but they have the option. If there is a certified humane label on the carton, those hens must spend 6 hours per day outdoors.
Pasture-raised: On its own, this term is not regulated by the USDA—but if paired with certified humane, it means that the hens spend most of their lives outside.
Omega-3: The food these hens eat contains omega-3 fatty acids. They are typically given fish oil or other ingredients rich in omega-3s.
Vegetarian-fed: As you’d probably guess, this means the chickens ate vegetarian feed. However, it’s important to note that chickens are omnivores, so that’s not necessarily an ideal diet for them.
Pasteurized: The vast majority of eggs are not pasteurized, so these aren’t supereasy to find. If you want to use eggs raw, but eliminate the small risk of getting sick from salmonella, these are a decent option. Beware, though: The pasteurization process can affect egg white protein structure and cause problems in egg-white heavy baking recipes like angel food cake.
How I Shop for Eggs
Given all of this information, what do I personally look for at the market?
First off, I’m ignoring eggshell color, “farm fresh,” “grade A,” and “hormone-free.”
I’m looking for organic, because that carries actual, important requirements, and certified humane, which is not only good in and of itself, but it also adds teeth to other claims around how the birds live. I’m insisting on cage-free, and either free-range or pasture-raised.
So that’s organic, certified humane, cage-free, and either free-range or pasture–raised.