Easter is right around the corner, mama! Which means you’re in the market for some eggs right about now if you plan on dying Easter eggs with your little ones. Do you know what kind of eggs you’re going to buy? This might sound like a silly question, but if you’ve ever found yourself at the grocery store puzzled over all your different options of the same product, you probably understand where I’m coming from. You start weighing price, ingredients, and special labels that stand out to you.
And the egg section is one of the worst! I mean, they’re all eggs, right? Are they really all that different? Yes and no. They’re all eggs, of course, but they can come from very different chickens.
The truth is, not all egg labels are the same, and not all marketing claims are worth their weight. Food labels are designed to make products look their best, or better than they really are. And with egg sellers all pushing essentially the same product, they have to find ways to try and stand out, or rise above their competition. The problem is that many of the egg label claims are designed to be misleading.
Why Labels Matters
Before we get into the labels, you should first know why labeling is such a big deal. Are you aware of the standard in the egg industry?
It’s sad, but true. Battery cages – hundreds lined up and stacked on top of each other, each containing up to 10 hens. Their beaks are usually cut off so they don’t peck each other, they can’t spread their wings because they’re packed so tight, and of course there’s nowhere else for them to use the bathroom but on top of each other. If they die, their cage mates are forced to live with their bodies just… there. And because of their harsh living conditions, life span of these hens go from a potential 5-8 years to 1-2 years, when they’re promptly shipped off to slaughter.
(If you want to see a glimpse of reality, watch here.)
The European Union exchanged battery cages for roomier enclosures in 2012 in their egg industry, and California passed Prop 2 that went into affect in 2015 following their example. Unfortunately the rest of America doesn’t seem as concerned.
Because of the incredibly high demand of eggs from consumers, factory farmers do whatever it takes to increase production. They are a business, after all. Chickens, to them, are merely product, not living breathing beings. But once consumers started finding out the truth about factory farming and animal cruelty, branding and marketing took another turn. Suddenly, it was super important to look like one of the good guys, and not those “evil” mass-producing corporate egg factories.
Consequently, branding and marketing got really good at wording things like a politician – they aren’t really lying, they’re just very careful about the words they choose in order to make their products sound better than they are.
But if you educate yourself, you can make more informed decisions about what you’re buying (and therefore supporting). It’s part of the art of “reading between the lines.”
Now don’t get me wrong – just because a food label is misleading (even extremely so), it doesn’t necessarily make it a bad product. It’s up to you to decide what you’re okay with accepting as far as truth in marketing goes.
There are sooo many different labels on available egg products these days – “all natural,” “cage free,” “hormone free,” “pasture raised,” etc. Companies are getting better and better at branding and marketing their products to appeal to their audience – us! Which is why it’s so important we learn how to “read between the lines” and understand the truth about what egg labels are really saying.
These words mean absolutely nothing when they’re slapped on a food label. Yep – nada. If you’re looking for actual “farm fresh” eggs, you’re better off going to a family farm to buy them.
This is another label that means zip zero nada. The way I think of it is – okay, it’s an egg. It came from a chicken. What exactly is the opposite of “all natural?” A synthetic egg? I guess if you’re talking vegan egg substitutes.
And no, this label does not mean the chickens were fed a natural diet.
Cage-free eggs sound great, right? Maybe the chickens are free to roam in a barn or outside, out of a cage? Not exactly.
This label isn’t lying – the chickens aren’t in cages. They are, however, packed into huge industrial barns full of tens of thousands of birds with limited space to “roam.”
Although you may think this label means the birds are healthy and natural, that they weren’t given all those crazy injections of hormones, this is nothing to write home about. It’s actually illegal to give growth hormones to these chickens and has been for 50 years. Which means all eggs are hormone free. It’s like labeling them “from real chickens.”
Free-range, while better than “cage free,” is only slightly so. To label eggs with this, chickens must be cage-free and have some kind of access to the outdoors. Unfortunately, there aren’t any regulations on how much time chickens are allowed outside, or how much space they’re given.
That means free-range chickens could potentially be given huge pieces of grass in the fresh air to wander, or it could mean they live in a barn with less than a square foot of space and an insignificant patch of dirt and concrete right outside a tiny door.
Vegetarian Fed/Vegetarian Diet
This is actually one I would shy away from. Chickens are not naturally vegetarians – they eat everything from grubs to grasshoppers along with grains. If a chicken is fed a vegetarian diet, it usually means they’re fed mainly corn. Which is cheap, but not at all normal for your friendly neighborhood hen.
Most chickens whose eggs are labeled “Omega-3” are generally fed foods like flaxseed to increase their omega-3 count. This is great, but doesn’t mean much on its own. If it’s on the same package as “pasture raised” – now we’re talking. Chickens who are pasture raised eat a diet with a natural omega-3 intake twice as high as the alternative, so labeling it with “omega-3” is extra proof that the chickens are being raised right.
Pasture raised is the gold star of egg labels! Chickens that are pasture raised spend most of their lives outdoors, with a nice amount of space and access to a barn so they’re protected at night. This also means they’re eating a more natural diet – grubs, grass, insects, along with corn feed.
Unfortunately, much like “free-range,” there are no regulations dictating the chickens’ diets, or amount of space. Because of this, I like to make a point of reading more of the egg carton labels. They’ll usually tell you how much space they allot per bird. My personal favorite brand, Pasture Raised Alfresco Eggs by Vital Farms, gives each of their chickens 108 sq. ft. of space, which is the most I’ve found so far.
Now we’re getting into a regulated egg label! For eggs to be “certified organic,” the chickens must be antibiotic and hormone free, fed organic food, live cage free and be free range. However, it doesn’t mean pasture raised. And it certainly doesn’t mean the chickens are raised humanely.
In fact, none of the labels we’ve talked about so far guarantee the humane treatment of the chickens – meaning beak cutting and forced molting (starving chickens to make them keep laying) are still permitted.
*Pro tip: “Organic” also doesn’t mean Non-GMO. In any food. Including what’s fed to the chickens.*
Certified Humane/Animal Welfare Approved
Either one of these labels are the only ones with strict regulations on the treatment of laying hens. It regulates outside time and space, flock size limits, and animal welfare like no beak cutting and no forced molting.
If you’re looking for the greatest cruelty-free option, look for egg cartons labeled pasture raised and certified humane. They’re going to be your best bet if you’re for supporting the healthy and humane treatment of chickens in the egg industry. That is, unless you have a friend or family member who just so happens to raise chickens themselves and has extra eggs to give out. If that’s the case – even better!
Hopes this helps mama!
Until next time,