Egg Labels: What To Look For

I’ll never forget my first hunt to find “real” eggs back when we initially made our switch to real food. I’d read in Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food, that “pastured” was the optimal egg label to look for yet when I visited three different grocery stores in our area – including health food stores – everyone basically looked at me like I had three heads. Those early days were fun. So, I went back to my research just to make sure I wasn’t confusing the word “pastured” with “pasteurized” (two similar sounding terms with very different meanings!), and I was momentarily at a loss.

Eventually I figured out that the “good” eggs are the local ones found at the farmers’ market (that come in all different colored shells by the way, including white). I learned that in most cases pastured chickens not only roam free, but roam on a green, grassy field – or should we call it – a pasture! Unlike cows, chickens do well solely on grains, BUT they are much healthier animals if they eat some greens as well. And as I’ve shared before, “The diet of the animals we eat strongly influences the nutritional quality, and healthfulness of the food we get from them, whether it is meat or milk or eggs.*”

Healthier chickens
(defined by diet and living conditions)
= more nutritious eggs!

So, for a couple years now we’ve been almost exclusively buying our eggs from our local grower’s only farmers’ market. And what I’ve noticed is that – no matter what type of grocery store eggs we compare them to – you can see the difference. The color of the yolks from truly pastured eggs are a vibrant orange versus the pale yellow you typically find. And when farmers’ market shopping there is no need to understand the different egg labels since you basically “shake the hand that feeds you” and can simply ask the farmer about the living conditions and diet of their chickens as well as the use (or lack) of antibiotics.

Farmer's Market Egg vs. Organic Egg - 100 Days of Real Food

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In an effort to clear some things up, here’s the low down on some common egg labels (based on information provided by the USDA and Humane Society). Read on to see what terms are actually regulated by the government and what they mean exactly – if anything!

*Quote from the book Food Rules.Update 3/5/13: A lot of readers have asked what the best choice is if there are no quality eggs from a farmer’s market in their area. We think organic eggs from the grocery store would be your next best bet, but also suggest reading the other comments below. 

Packaging Term


Certified Organic The birds are kept uncaged inside barns or warehouses, and are required to have outdoor access, but the amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access is not at all regulated (therefore it could be minimal and low quality). They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the USDA’s National Organic Program.
Free Range, Free Roaming This indicates that shelter was provided with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and the outdoors (which may be fenced and/or covered). This label is regulated by the USDA, but there are no specific requirements around the duration or quality of outdoor access. So let’s face it – this could simply mean there is an opening to a small, crowded dirt yard.
Cage Free This label indicates that the chickens were able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water. Note: No outside time provided or specific requirements around how many chicken per square foot.
Vegetarian Fed These birds are not fed animal byproducts, but this label does not indicate anything about the animals’ living conditions (i.e. caged vs. outside time) or what else they are fed.
Pasture Raised, Pastured Due to the number of variables involved, the USDA has not developed a federal definition for pasture-raised products. Generally speaking though, “pastured” means the animals had access to a green field (not just any field) and in turn likely provide high-quality nutritious products. But since this term is not currently regulated there is no way to know for sure unless you directly ask the farmer (at the market).
Natural “As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as ‘natural’ must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients.” However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices – i.e. how a chicken is housed and fed – and only applies to processing of meat and egg products.

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258 thoughts on “Egg Labels: What To Look For”

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  1. I’m glad to see this post, Lisa. My family owns a small, sustainable farm and we deal with many well-meaning, yet confused, customers who don’t know how to differentiate between the labels and lingo of farm food! There is one more point I’d like to clarify. I noticed the Certified Organic label means the chickens are fed an organic, all VEGETARIAN diet. Unfortunately, most people do not realize that chickens are not designed to eat only plant foods. Chickens are natural OMNIVORES, meaning their natural diets consist of both plants AND animals. Often what a chicken pecks from those grassy fields is insects and bugs it finds crawling along the ground. Sometimes it’s easy to be fooled into thinking the certified organic or vegetarian labels mean those eggs must naturally be better, but it is also important to know the animal’s natural diet to make an informed choice.

  2. Hello, I have fresh farm eggs for sale, I deliver to Minot, Garrison, and Bismarck, ND once a week. If you are interested in eggs give me a call. 701-721-7497.

  3. Some big chains now carry pastured eggs. Vons in my area sells Vital Farms eggs (“from happy chickens!”). They’ll put you back $7 a dozen, though. As I don’t eat that many eggs, it’s fine for me.

  4. People often forget that the chicken’s most natural source of food is worms… hence the beak… grains are not natural for them… anyone composting will usually have a very healthy amount and deep red in colour worms (the darker the red the healthier the worms)… let the chickens roam in that composing area and feed on the worms and that’s why chickens was a healthy source of protein for us…

  5. We raise chickens and I can tell you that the yolk color is entirely dependent on what they eat. If they are grain fed like supermarket eggs, the yolks will be a light yellow. If the feed is soy free it will be a darker yellow. Our yolks are just like the dark one in your picture – it comes from chickens who are free ranging – ones that pick and choose what they are eating. The same chickens, if they need to be cooped and supplemented with grain, will lay much lighter yolks. If we supplement with grain with soy rather than soy free grain, the yolks are also much lighter.

  6. Darker yolk is better… I have no idea who wrote this, but it is incorrect. The yolk reflects what the hen ate. The darker yolks are loaded with nutrients… This is pure misinformation.

  7. I grew up in the countryside and we have always had our own chickens. And what I have learned from my grandmother is that the colour of the yolk is given by what the chicken eats. So if the chicken would eat lots of corn, it would be a vibrant yelow with orange tint. If it was more wheat, the yolk would be lighter in colour. The eggs as per your picture were valued and prefered by the ladies because you could get nicer colour of the batter and dough with them. So when they had to buy eggs for our special christmas sweet bread (much like a panetone ), they would allways ask what the chockens were fed (of course they all had acces to grass and were also fed the family’s leftovers). Also, the eggs were collected daily, but when you would used them, you rarely had more eggs with yolks in the same tint of yellow. That is probably because the chickens ate different food(depending what they found in the yard and on what leftovers the family had :). )and different quantity of cereal each day. But I am not an expert and never did my research on this subject :D , just childhood memories here.

    1. It seems like all of our eggs are dark no matter what we feed them. We only see the pale ones when we buy them from the store. This is just based on my own personal experience.

    2. A nice rich yellow will come from a diet high on grass and bugs too. Our chickens are fed a grain ration, which includes corn, and given access to pasture every day. The result, yolks that looks the color of apricots. There is no comparison! :)

  8. Pretty new to purchasing organic food products. Lately I have been buying Nellie’s Cage Free eggs. I’ve done some research on them and so far all seems positive but does anyone have any information on why I shouldn’t buy this brand?

  9. We have free ranging chickens and turkeys on our acreage. The chickens spend most of their days scratching in the leaves and dirt — they much prefer the bugs. Turkeys, however, spend their time eating greens. They show little interest in the dirt & bugs. Give them a spot of clover and they are in heaven.

    We do supplement with an organic, soy free grain in the evening during the winter after they have spent all day outside roaming. The yolks are always a vibrant orange unless the grainery is out of soy free feed. Then the yolks will quickly revert to dull yellow.

  10. I have chickens at my house where not only are they free to roam but they get very nutritious treats in addition to layer mash offered at all times. Their yolks are yellow, not orange. I don’t think yellow yolks indicate poor nutrition or unpastured chickens, but colored food.

  11. I raise my own chickens. They have shelter, water and they roam all over my ranch. Sometimes it’s like have an Easter egg hunt year round. They do have laying boxes but sometimes they just don’t want to use them. I find most of them but every once in awhile I see new chick’s walking around. These are the best eggs.

  12. I find the author’s description of pastured eggs amusing: “chickens do well solely on grains, BUT they are much healthier animals if they eat some greens as well. ” I keep chickens. During the day they run free on our acreage. They forage for most of their food. While they do eat grains and grasses, their preferred food is bugs and worms and baby mice. In the winter they pick thru the horse manure. Be very clear on this – chickens are omnivores. A vegetarian diet is not “normal” for chickens. My girls give me beautiful eggs with bright orange yolks and non-runny whites, but those eggs owe some of their beauty to bugs.

    1. Same here Ellen, I open the coop door around 7 and close it at dark. They forage all day. Ticks, earthworms, salamanders and I put out a bowl of soy and corn free food every day. The egg yolks are bright orange with multi colored shells. They drink from the creek and in the winter eat snow. Very hardy healthy birds.

    2. When I was a kid, we saw one of our hens eat a little ring-neck snake on the creek bank. A couple of days later, I was cooking my breakfast and one of the eggs I was frying had a really dark orange yolk. My mom remarked that it was probably from the hen that ate the snake. Thanks, mom, for mentioning that while I was making my breakfast!

  13. So how about labels saying no GMO feed? What does “certificad humane” label mean? Also, does orgánic mean free of antibiotics AND hormones too?

  14. My concern with farmers market eggs is always the quality of the food they are giving. Is it GMO feed? They could be roaming free, yet, given crappy food. Organic at least means they are free of antibiotic, hormones and feed is organic. I am not bold enough to ask a ton of weird questions to a farmers market local.

    1. The farmers at the local farmers markets are there to answer your questions. It is why we sacrifice our weekends to be available to you. We encourage and appreciate that consumers are informed and concerned about where their food comes from. You are paying for the privilege to ask the questions that are important to you and your family. The answer, in my best opinion, is that true free range pastured eggs are better than organic even if they are not fed an organic feed supplement. Warehoused organic fed chickens are not getting the nutrients that pastured chickens get. The amount of grain needed to feed a hen that is foraging for her own food is minimal Additionally, in most cases you will find that if a local farmer is pasturing his / her hens, they are likely feeding a non-gmo feed with no antibiotics. But never feel bad about asking for confirmation.