These days, egg cartons are covered with health claims and so-called benefits and advantages attributed to the eggs inside. How do you know which are the best eggs — and what's just marketing hype? I'm going to translate everything you might encounter on a typical carton of eggs for you, right here, and make your search for the best eggs a lot easier.
Although eggs have gotten a bad rap for some time now — all because of their high cholesterol content — they're anything but bad guys. Actually, eggs are a near-perfect food, providing excellent quality protein, nutrients and important omega 3 fats — all wrapped in nature's finest packaging! They're rich in the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, and the mineral selenium, a powerful antioxidant-booster.
What's the Truth About Cholesterol? First of all, your blood cholesterol levels are not in any way related to your consumption of cholesterol-containing foods. Almost all of your cholesterol is manufactured by your liver to serve as a life-sustaining component of your blood. Furthermore, there is no correlation between blood cholesterol levels and the rate of heart disease, regardless of how universally-accepted this belief has become.
If you still believe the cholesterol myth, I recommend you go to my article on What Causes Heart Disease? where I reveal the fallacy in that theory.
Grade (as in Grade A): The grade is based on egg size and overall "quality," but it says nothing about how the hens were raised — the most reliable measure for the best eggs.
Color of the Shell: Eggs have been primarily white for a many years, now they’re typically brown. This isn't any way to tell which is the best egg; it's just about whatever's in fashion.
All Vegetarian Feed: Chickens are actually not vegetarian; they naturally prefer worms and bugs, along with grass and grains. This description simply means that the feed does not contain animal byproducts, which are less desirable than grain feed.
Omega 3 enriched: The means that the hens are fed flax, fish or other supplements to raise omega 3 levels. The amount of omega 3 fats will vary depending on the feed; Look for a specification for the amount of DHA, the most beneficial type of omega 3. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which comes from vegetarian sources, is beneficial as well, but much less so. See Sources of Omega 3 Fats to find good sources of omega 3's.
Farm-Fresh: Straight from the marketing department copywriter — and meaningless.
Cage-Free: Simply means they are not kept in individual cages, but they still are likely housed in crowded and dirty living conditions. You don't really know.
Free-Range: Access to the outdoors is required, but many of the hens stay inside. Otherwise, pretty much like cage-free - the definition is vague and potentially misleading. Their feed, which may contain chicken parts, is infused with antibiotics to try to prevent the diseases they will inevitably get living in these conditions.
The chickens pictured above could be defined as "cage-free" and “free range” as long as they have “access to the outdoors.” This could be a small door at one corner of the barn that is open for a short period of time each day. The chickens that aren’t in close proximity to that door probably will never go outside.
Organic: Only organic feed, no antibiotics (unless sick), must not be in cages and must have “access” to outdoors. Again, the descriptions are somewhat vague, although the best eggs would have to be organic.
Organic feed is also less vulnerable to contamination. Conventional chicken feed is based on corn and soy, but it can also include slaughterhouse waste, which may be tainted with germs. By contrast, organic feed cannot contain animal by-products. Organic feed is also free of toxic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides — and contains no genetically modified organisms.
No Antibiotics or Hormones Used: Always a good thing to look for. You don't want your eggs full of antibiotics or steroids.
Pastured: Not a regulated category, but it suggests that the hens spend much of their time roaming about a large outdoor area foraging for bugs and grass. True free-range, pastured eggs have darker and firmer yolks because the hens are free to eat their natural diet.
Eggs from these hens are also nutritionally superior. Testing has found that, compared to commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain:
Being out in the fields and not crowded into tight quarters, pastured hens don't spread infections as quickly as caged hens do, and farmers say they develop healthier immune systems this way.
In general, though, the risks of infection in both organic and conventional eggs remain low. Overall, food scientists estimate that in the US, only 1 in 20,000 eggs is contaminated. You could literally eat one raw egg every day for sixty years and never encounter one that is positive for salmonella.
Humane Certification: You might see a label like "Certified Humane Raised & Handled." This is a pretty good indication that the hens were treated well.
There are vast differences in how eggs are processed and handled, even under the "certified organic" label. These factors largely determine which are the best eggs to get.
There is a significant difference between factory-raised eggs versus small-farm eggs when it comes to processing and handling. Normally, when a hen lays an egg, a secretion coats the egg to protect it from bacteria until it’s ready to hatch (in several weeks). Most factories use a chemical wash (including things like chlorine and lye) to clean the eggs, which also removes this protective coating. These agents serve mostly as sanitizers, rather than washing agents. However, they make the porous shell far more vulnerable to salmonella.
To protect the eggs, producers add a thin film of mineral oil. This is sometimes done to organic eggs as well, although organic egg producers may use vegetable oil as a more natural alternative. It's unlikely that an organic farmer would choose to use mineral oil or other harmful substances when cleaning and processing eggs, but the regulations are so variable from state to state, you just can't be certain.
Not all eggs undergo oiling, either, but most larger producers do this. Eggs from small farms that maintain the natural coating are not only naturally protected from bacteria, but can be kept unrefrigerated for a month without spoiling.
Regulations for egg producers vary from state to state. There are different federal and state regulations for egg farmers, depending on what the eggs will be used for. Every state has its own specific egg laws, which makes it more complicated to figure out what process your eggs have gone through.
So the truth is that, unless you can contact the farm that your eggs came from, you can’t be sure what process the eggs have gone through. That's another good reason to buy eggs locally if at all possible.
Eggs from large factory farms have many times more salmonella than eggs from smaller, organic farms. About 95 percent of the eggs produced in the United States come from these gigantic egg factories housing millions of hens under one roof, in typically unsanitary conditions where bacteria can breed easily.
The best eggs cannot be found in a grocery store, but from a small farmer you get to know and trust. Fortunately, most rural areas have small farmers with chickens. If you live in an urban area, visit your local health food store. They might carry a local farm's eggs or know of a place to get them. Farmers markets are another great way to meet farmers who produce naturally-grown eggs as well as other fresh organic foods.
Local Harvest.org's website allows you to find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably-grown food in your area, where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, free-range pastured eggs and many other food items.
Eatwild.com's Directory of Farms lists more than 1,300 pasture-based farms, with more farms being added each week. It is the most comprehensive source for grass-fed meat and dairy products in the United States and Canada. Products include: all types of meat and game, eggs, milk, cheeses, produce, nuts, berries, wild-caught salmon and more!
The Cornucopia Institute's organic egg scorecard rates name-brand and private-label organic eggs based on 22 criteria. You can see which brands of eggs found in your region are produced using the best organic farming practices and ethics.
The Institute's website also has an organic dairy and soy scorecard which shows you who produces the highest-quality organic products in these categories.
The Cornucopia Institute is on my list of worthwhile organizations to support in the campaign for increased sustainable and organic agriculture. Please take a minute to look them over and pay a visit to their website. Make a contribution if you can — the future of the world's food supply depends on organizations like these.
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