Thursday, September 18, 2008
Eggs: They Are What Their Mothers Eat
Cage free. Organic. All natural. Free range. You see these terms on egg cartons all the time, some even using all four at once! But what do they mean? Does “free range” mean access to a chicken’s natural,? Let’s examine each nebulous term for what it’s worth.
As applied to chicken eggs, this term is essentially meaningless. Government only loosely regulates the definition of “free range,” and egg producers have jumped at the opportunity to print some new labels and charge a couple extra bucks in return for giving their hens occasional access to a tiny patch of dirt. According to the Department of Agriculture (PDF), egg “producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the Outside” In other words, there needs to be a door to the chicken cage, and it needs to be open part of the time, but the chickens can still eat substandard food and live in cramped conditions. A “range” can range from being a full-fledged pasture (not likely) to a 10 x 10 patch of manure and dirt (more likely). Chances are, most free range chickens rarely even venture outside. Why would they? Their food is usually inside.
Even more meaningless than “free range,” this term has no legal definition. Technically, cage free hens don’t live in stifling metal cages; instead, they might still live in stifling, overcrowded henhouses! Some cage free hens’ lives aren’t much qualitatively better than those who live in cages and most still aren’t getting any access to the outdoors, but they’re generally raised with better food and better treatment.
Organic is more useful and easy to pin down. Organic egg producing hens are given organic feed, no antibiotics (unless in the case of an outbreak), and limited access to the outdoors (just a door to their cage or barn, really). These are better than your average mass-produced egg, but your best bet is still to find a truly pasture-raised egg.
Um, “all natural”? As opposed to artificial? This is the most useless, all-encompassing term for anything. All produce is natural. These eggs weren’t created in a lab by a team of white coats. Even the most steroid-pumped, antibiotic-immersed hens produce “natural” eggs the way nature intended: by laying them. “All natural” is just a subtly disingenuous term used to conjure up images of hens happily pecking away at seeds and bounding through pastures, only to return home for the nightly egg-laying. It’s a feel-good phrase that distracts consumers from the fact that most eggs are produced in appalling, wholly unnatural conditions. Feel free to eat all natural eggs, but don’t be fooled into thinking they’re of any particular improvement in quality.
Omega-3 fortified eggs come from hens fed flax, linseed, or a direct supplement. The healthy fats do trickle down to the consumer, but in varying degrees. Seeds (especially flax) aren’t the greatest source of omega-3 fats anyway, so we would advise you not to rely on the fortified eggs for your healthy fat source. Buy these if you like – omega-3 fortified eggs also tend to come from organic, cage-free birds, so they’re generally better – but stick with the fish oil, too.
The Bottom Line
As we are fastidious about what we eat, we should also pay attention to what our food eats. Chickens raised in stressful environments – eating corn, soy, and antibiotics (a decidedly unPrimal diet for a chicken), and relegated to a tiny cage that would result in atrophy were it not for the steroids – do not produce high quality eggs. Your best bet is to research the egg producers. Free range and cage free are good starts, but it’s not the end of it. Find out if their birds are actually free range, and not just given access to a patch of dirt. If the hens are out their pecking away in a pasture, digging for grubs and worms and eating wild grasses, they’re going to produce eggs that are much more inline with how nature intends it.
A study (PDF) of fourteen free range chicken farms conducted by Mother Earth News (I know, I know, how hippy-dippy can you get?) confirms that true pasture/range free chickens, given a natural diet of grains, insects, grasses, and seeds, produce eggs loaded with nutrients. Pasture raised eggs have more beta-carotene, vitamins E and A, and omega-3 levels, with less cholesterol and saturated fat than mass-market eggs.
The choice is pretty clear. If you can afford it, look for local varieties of pasture raised eggs. Try the farmer’s market or gourmet grocery stores. If not, at least stick with organic, cage free, free range eggs. Their chickens may not have been out frolicking, but at least they weren’t stuffed into cages and force-fed drugs. Your wallet may hurt in the short term, but – as we know better than anyone else – your long-term health is worth the extra expense.