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October’s 31 Days of Real Food-Day 16

by Olivia Furlow

Day 16-Eggs

decoding-egg-carton-labels

Brown eggs

There’s no significant nutritional difference between white and brown eggs and brown eggs aren’t more “natural” than white. It’s simply the breed of the hen that determines the color of the eggs. Many people associated brown eggs with being more natural and nutritious and its not true. Brown eggs tend to cost more because the hens that lay brown eggs are larger, so they require more feed.

Cage-free

Also labeled as “from free-roaming hens”. Cage-free eggs are laid by hens that are allowed to roam in a room or open area, usually in a barn or poultry house. These eggs are a good choice if the living conditions of the hens is important to you. But keep in mind that cage-free hens don’t necessary have access to the outdoors and they still may live in crowded barns. As far as nutritional content, cage-free eggs are no better than traditional eggs.

Free-range

The label may also refer to these eggs as “pasture fed,” meaning that they are produced by hens raised outdoors or with access to outdoors. Another example of if the hens’ living conditions are important to you then this is the best choice. The nutritional content is the same as traditionally produced eggs.

Pasture-raised

In terms of replicating chickens’ natural environment and way of life, pasture-raised is pretty much the gold standard. Pasture-raised chickens spend most of their life outdoors, with a fair amount of space plus access to a barn. Many are able to eat a diet of worms, insects and grass, along with corn feed, which may or may not be organic. There is a wide range of “pasture-raised” farms. Some have spacious fields, others are a bit crowded. Some farms list the square footage per bird on their carton. Some farms rotate their birds through different pastures to ensure a rich, varied diet while others keep the birds on the same plot of land.

100% natural

Gimmick! The term “natural” has nothing to do with how the chicken was raised. It simply means that nothing was added to the egg, such as flavorings, brines or coloring. All eggs meet the criteria for being 100 percent natural or all-natural.

Organic

Unlike the term “natural,” USDA Organic label claims are highly regulated. Some states and other certification programs can differ depending on region. Organic eggs are from uncaged hens that have been raised according to the USDA’s National Organic Program guidelines. That means that they must be allowed free range of their houses and also outdoor access. These hens are also fed an organic diet consisting of feed that wasn’t treated with conventional pesticides or fertilizers. Organic eggs have no nutritional benefit over eggs from conventionally raised hens. While it’s not clear whether pesticides and fertilizers can make their way into eggs, organic eggs are guaranteed to be from cage-free hens with at least some access to the outdoors, and producers must meet the higher animal-welfare standards of the organic certification as defined by the USDA. If you want to support organic farming practices, then choose organic eggs. But the “organic” label doesn’t ensure a more nutritious egg.

No added hormones

Hormones aren’t allowed to be given to chickens, like ever. It is illegal in the U.S. If the claim “no hormones added” is used on labels, it must be followed by a statement that says “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones,” or a similar qualifier. Its just another gimmick. There’s no reason to spend more money on eggs that are marketed as “no hormones added,” because zero eggs contain added hormones.

No antibiotics

According to the USDA, this claim can be used on eggs if the producer supplies sufficient documentation demonstrating that the birds were raised without antibiotics of any type. The American Egg Board says that nearly all eggs are antibiotic-free, and that if sick hens are given antibiotics, any eggs that are produced are “diverted from human consumption” according to FDA regulations.

Soy-free eggs

Eggs from hens that are fed soy-free diets. Soy-free eggs are possibly beneficial to those who are allergic to soy, although USDA experts say that there’s no evidence that any of soy’s allergenicity is carried over into the eggs.

Vitamin-enhanced

The hens’ diets are modified by adding ingredients such as alfalfa, rice bran and sea kelp to their feed, resulting in eggs with higher levels of nutrients such as B vitamins and vitamins A, D and E.

Worth any extra cost? Probably not. For most of us, the amounts of vitamins provided by these eggs won’t provide a significant nutrient boost, certainly nothing compared to what we can get through a varied diet of wholesome foods or an over-the-counter multivitamin and mineral supplement.

Omega-3 enriched

Ingredients such as flaxseed, algae and fish oils are added to hens’ diets, increasing the omega-3 content from about 30 mg per egg to 100 to 600-plus mg per egg. The two types of omega-3s shown to have the most health benefits are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), but most omega-3-fortified eggs contain just a small amount of these specific omega-3s (far less than what’s in fish or fish oil capsules), and have much more ALA (alpha-linoleic acid), which doesn’t appear to have the same health benefits. And although some brands boosts that their omega-3-fortified eggs contain as much as 25 percent less saturated fat, eggs are already low in saturated fat (about 1.5 gram per egg). So is it really that significant? If it is to you then there you go, Omega-3 enriched is the way to go.

Vegetarian

Chickens are supposed to eat insects! If you’ve ever seen truly free-range chickens, they spend most of their day on the lookout for juicy grubs. To ensure that a chicken’s eggs are fully vegetarian, one would have to go to extreme lengths to prevent that chicken from having access to the outdoors. Most likely, by keeping it locked up in a barn. Vegetarian-fed is a ridiculously perfect example of healthwashing advertising.

Pasteurized

Pasteurized eggs come in three forms: out of the shell in cartons, dried and powdered, and as whole eggs in the shell. Since eggs will start to cook around 145°, pasteurization has to happen below this temperature. Most eggs are pasteurized by holding them in a warm water bath between 130° and 140° for 5 – 45 minutes. After pasteurization, eggs are coated with food-grade wax to prevent further contamination.

Pasteurization kills potentially harmful bacteria, including Salmonella. There is some debate about whether the process might also kill or alter other healthful parts of the egg or affects its overall nutritional value, just as with pasteurized milk verses raw milk.

Symbols

There are countless symbols and logos printed on packaging that supposedly make it easy to assess a product’s health value at a glance. USDA Organic, non-GMO project verified, kosher, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance-certified, and GF are a few examples. The problem is that these symbols say far less about a product than the list of ingredients on the back. Pay closer attention to what’s actually in the package than what the package claims to be.

Family farm owned or Farm-Fresh

This claim always strikes me as odd, since every farm owner is part of some family. Just because a farm is owned by a family doesn’t mean that it hasn’t become corporatized or industrialized. The statement is often used with a date, like…since 1965. This year is put on a product to suggest that the farm has continued to honor old production methods. Since that farm’s products are being sold in a large supermarket, chances are it is not growing food in the style of the small-scale farmers at your local market. We live in Lancaster County, where we can take full advantage of great local “family” farms instead of reading about one on a label at Giant Food Stores.

Grade

This is determined by interior qualities like defects or freshness and exterior factors including shell quality. Most eggs sold are grade AA or A, and there’s very little difference between the two. Grade AA has thick, firm whites, high, round yolks and clean, unbroken shells. Grade A eggs, most common in stores, have the same qualities as AA but with slightly less firm whites. Grade B, rarely sold retail, is primarily used in prepared egg products. These eggs are just as good to eat, but they have different qualities, such as thinner whites. So these eggs tend to be better used in baked goods or as an omelet. Grades AA and A work better for dishes like fried eggs, when you don’t want the egg whites to run. There’s no difference in nutritional value between the grades. Any extra money spent on AA is just for looks.

Size

Extra large, large and medium are the most common sizes sold, although size classifications range from jumbo down to small and peewee eggs. A jumbo egg has nearly 8 grams of protein about 50 percent more than the 5.3 grams of protein found in a medium egg.

Best-before dates

If you buy store bought eggs use your own judgment when it comes to a product’s freshness, rather than relying on a date selected by a manufacturer whose interests lie in selling as many products as possible. Generally unregulated, these dates do not indicate food safety. These suggested dates from the manufacturer indicate the food company’s opinion of peak quality. Most real food has no best-before date stamped on its package because it has no package.

So unless you’re striving to live an organic (or mostly organic) lifestyle, feel strongly about how the hens were raised, or have a soy allergy, there’s nothing wrong with ordinary store-bought eggs (or ordinary non-organic, non-omega-fortified eggs from the farmer’s market.)

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