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

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

Definition

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. The area I live in has very limited access to farm fresh eggs. Basically you need to know a farmer which I don’t. :( I try to buy organic eggs at the grocery store. Recently I came across Happy Eggs. Can anyone give me any insight as to their quality? They were very expensive and I want to be sure they are worth it.
    http://thehappyeggco.com/our-farms/

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Christine. From their website, they look like a good choice but I can’t discern much beyond what they share. If you want specific info on their practices, I would give the company a call. :) ~Amy

  2. My brother raises chickens with garden scraps and has a great place for them to roam spring, summer, and fall (Indiana winters do not allow much green grass), BUT he feeds them grain. He does not purchase organic grain, therefore leaving it open to GMO/junk corn. Is this better than the eggs I buy at Whole Foods that are labeled as organic free range? sooooo…..chickens that eat grass and cruddy grain, or the chicken that eat organic grain but might not get much grass time…???? Which one?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Jill. That is a really tough call, and it comes down to weighing the practices of each operation. I lean toward organic, if the animals are free range but you might need to look into how free range is defined by that supplier. It can be pretty subjective. ~Amy

  3. Just buying organic eggs from vegetarian-fed chickens (from Costco or wherever) still means the chickens could have been raised rather inhumanely, and to some people that’s an important factor to consider.

  4. Just get organic eggs and make sure the chickens were fed a vegetarian diet. It’s not that hard. We get eggs at Costco that state this.

  5. Different Breeds of Eggs will have different yolk colors, If you get pastured eggs from a farmer who raises different breeds of chickens you can get a similar result to the picture. The other information seems to be good though!

  6. Hi,

    Can someone please breakdown the nutritional proof that these eggs are better than just store bought $2 dozen eggs? At the end of the day all eggs contain protein, vitamin d, etc.

  7. I buy NatureFed because they are non GMO verified and sometime egg-lands best or organic valley more when I can’t get the other ones and I’m in a pinch…. Since I can’t find the farms market where I’m at..

  8. Lisa, what about Certified Humane?

    I was buying organic eggs for a long time until I found out that isn’t necessarily the best option. I heard about Phil’s Fresh Eggs and that they are certified humane and so have been buying them since. I would love to buy my eggs at the Farmers market but it can get expensive along with all of the other organic and non GMO foods we try to buy.

    Would love to you know your thoughts on the Phil’s Eggs. :-)

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Zeena. Phil’s is certainly a cut above most factory farms where chickens are caged. While the Certified Human stamp/seal does mean that the cruelest of practices are eliminated and assures the use of no antibiotics or hormones, it does not mean that the chickens are outside roaming freely nor eating their natural or organic diet. Does Phil’s offer an organic option? ~Amy

  9. I eat locally raised eggs from a gentleman who keeps a few chickens on his property. They are free range and eat lots of good things. We ran out last week so my husband bought a dozen of EB eggs and after tasting one, I fed the rest to the dogs and cats. No flavor compared to my fresh eggs.

  10. We get our eggs fresh from our 5 hens in the backyard. Before we had our own hens, I balked when people said there was a noticeable difference between fresh, small-flock eggs and store eggs. Then I tried some and they are delicious! I hope to never return to commercially farmed eggs.

  11. We buy organic eggs from a local farm, so I guess they are “pastured”. I don’t think $5/dz is that expensive. Gosh, a fancy coffee costs almost the same amount & many people buy those daily without thinking about it. It’s all about perspective.

  12. I JUST PAID …GET THIS… PLEASE BE SITTING DOWN… I JUST PAID $8 for a dozen of farm, fresh eggs. Certified cruelty free and all that but when they said $8 I almost passed out!! What ever happened to the $4 dozen. Not that that is cheap but geeezzz….

  13. I just wanted to point out that chickens are naturally omnivores, like many birds. Their natural diet should NOT be solely grain, despite how well people think they do on it, as is said in the article. Their natural diet should consist of seeds and insects, and sometimes things like lizards or mice. They don’t eat GREENS nor are they naturally vegetarian.

    While I recognize that some factory farms may feed chickens disturbing items like chicken byproducts, and that may be a good reason to choose “vegetarian fed,” removing whole proteins like small animals and insects from their diet means they are not being fed a natural diet.

    1. My girls (aka, hens) love frogs! They eat bugs, flies, worms, etc. I’ve never seen them eat a lizard or mouse but it wouldn’t surprise me much.

  14. Fiona McQuillan

    We are raising our own chickens. We have 20 of them. They currently have an outdoor penned area and come and go as they wish (though we close them inside at night to keep them warm and predators away. One thing we have learned is they destroy/eat the grass very quickly. We are planning on expanding their outdoor area to 4 quadrants which we will rotate them through. They get pellets and grain we buy from the coop, bread and veggie scraps, and weeds I pull from the garden. I have not had to purchase commercial eggs in a year and I love it :)

    1. Fiona McQuillan

      we sell our eggs for $4/dz, which generates enough money to buy their feed, and some of the food for our other furry friends (of the indoor variety)

  15. We had been buying eggs from our farmer’s market here in town for the better part of the past year, but just in the last month or a bit more started getting them from two families here in town that raise their own hens in their yards right in the city. They’re generally even larger, darker, cheaper and even more fresh. They both belong to a raw milk drop we belong to as well…. This lovely way of eating has a way of spider-webbing out once you get started and you can really “grow” your own network of goodness with other folks nearby. Our trips to the supermarket just get less and less frequent in every way.

  16. The only reason I don’t buy organic or eggs at my farmer’s market is they are soooooooooooo expensive! Even if just from the farmer! I just can’t afford $5-6 bucks for a dozen eggs.

  17. I am thinking about gettting eggs from a local farm (I buy organic in the grocery store now) but am wondering if there is anything I need to ask first. Here is what they say their eggs are ‘Fresh brown eggs from our flock of pastured hens. Vegetarian feed and garden scraps. No hormones or antibiotics.’ Any advice is appreciated. It is through a CSA and I would hate to order 22 wks of eggs and find out there was more I should have asked!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Laura. You can ask more specifically about what is included in their feed, especially if you are concerned with GMOs. You can also find out if the birds are they pastured in a green field 100% of the time? It depends on your priorities in selecting eggs. Taking another look at the chart above might inspire other question choices. Hope this helps. ~Amy

  18. I buy Farm fresh eggs from a Puerto Rican woman down the road. They are free range and she feeds them organically. They get fruit, vegies, seeds, and the bugs they scratch from the ground. She is very particular about what they are fed. Howeve, I noticed you said organic yolks were pale, unless I misread that. And I want to say that my yolks are very yellow, a dark yellow and sometimes orange. The color comes from what they eat. and in fact grocery store yolks to me, even organic eggs have a very pale yolk. There is also a difference in the whites. My whites are thicker and hold up better when fried. Grocery store eggs are runnier and flat when frying. And then there is the taste…..do I even need to compare? LOL

  19. Theres a large local (pastured) egg supplier that supplies a lot of restaurants in the area, I used to get their eggs. I’m sure they’re still lit years better than store bought, but I recently switched to a small family farm because they had the orange-est most delicious eggs I’ve ever had! They only produce a few dozen a week so I feel lucky to have snagged such a great source.

  20. Can someone explain why Whole Foods sells “fertilized eggs”. Why would one want to consume “fertilized eggs” versus what I have to assume are unfertilized eggs? Is there a nutritional benefit?

  21. Thanks so much for this informative post(and to all for the comments). Feel much better prepared for choosing eggs.

  22. I am blessed to be able to have my own pastured chickens and can pluck my eggs right out of the nest box. My layers are spoiled with organic grain/seed supplements and have ready access to the 10 acres we share with them. There is NOTHING like a true fresh egg from a pastured free range chicken!

  23. We have our own chickens & live in Wisconsin – so we got snow! “The Girls” primarily eat veggie & fruit scraps along with feed supplement which is free from antibiotics. The yolks are a brilliant orange all year ’round. We keep a 100 watt bulb in the coop for them for warmth & light. When it’s nice out, the girls get to roam around but we make sure they stay within their pen this time of year especially because of our predator problem.

    What I don’t get is the justification for over-priced farmers’ market eggs. It doesn’t cost any more to feed them pasture & table scraps/greens. It’s only because it’s the “in thing to do” that they can jack up the prices on us. Basic econ 101! Think about the animals who are pastured here in the midwest – they may get some grain to finish off a bit if we have an early winter but, for the most part, much of our beef around in my area is already grass-fed. Yet, if I go & buy what’s labeled as “grass fed”, I can spend at least 4x the amount. What’s $2.89/lb for ground chuck at the local butcher w/ all local cows is $6.49/lb at another butcher which says we’re all “grass fed”. I know the farms that supply the 1st butcher & they are primarily grass fed beef. It’s crazy.

    Our demand has jacked up the price of these products.

    I realize other areas of the country it’s not as readily available but to increase it that much is just insane!

    OK, off my rant – sorry! :)

    1. Check to see if the farm is subsidized! It might not be, and you might be paying the “true” cost of the product.

    2. I can answer this about the eggs, a little, I have chickens and sell eggs on a small scale. I let my customers name their own price, what they feel is good for farm fresh eggs and people give me $3 to $5/dozen. I haven’t actually figured it out, I will soon, but I don’t think it covers the cost of feed. My chickens free-range on pasture, they leave the coop in the morning and make their daily rounds of 4+ acres eating whatever bugs, worms, grains and seeds they find but they still eat a lot of chicken feed. I could buy the $12/40lb bag of name brand feed but who knows what the heck kind of horrible cheap ingredients go into making it. So I seek out a special non-soy, non-corn, non-GMO high quality food for them and it costs $27/40lb bag. So actually, it does cost more for my chickens’ eggs. And while my egg sales likely don’t cover the cost of their food, I love selling their eggs and the people who buy them are so incredibly grateful to have them not to mention that chickens are entirely hilarious – they provide entertainment AND food, what could be better. :)

  24. Also! Do you have any experience with uncured bacon? Does your family buy bacon. I recently came across an organic, grass-fed farm and bought some uncured, natural bacon, but when I got home I had no idea what to do with it. I ended up marinading it (and I just made a post about it) http://yakkafit.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/bacon-bacon-bacon/
    I am very interested to hear your input, I couldn’t find any recipes that included bacon on your site.
    Thanks!

  25. thanks so much for the insight on this! i recently found these eggs at my local Whole Foods. was so excited to see that the industry seems to be noticing a shift in consumer concerns and providing the products we want. they were a hefty 4.99 for a dozen, but i’ve scaled back on the intake of eggs as a result and treating them like a luxury, like my grandparents did!

    http://www.naturefedeggs.com

  26. Haha posted on the wrong post. I buy all of our eggs at our farmers market though in the past I’ve bought certified humane. Any input on that label?

  27. What if buying local is not an option and neither is owning my own? Is there a least of the evils I can purchase?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Andrea. If you can’t find quality fresh farmer’s markets eggs, the next best option would be organic eggs from your grocery store. ~Amy

  28. We have had our own chickens for a year. We live in an area that allows chickens in the city. How fun it has been to interact with them and watch them grow! I never knew chickens could be like pets, but they follow us, let us pick them up and actually jump onto our hand. We get 6-8 eggs per day. They are delicious, with beautiful deep gold yolks as you described. The shells are so thick, it’s almost hard to break them. My husband lets them run around our backyard during the day, then they go back to their coop each evening. We wish we’d gotten our chickens a long time ago!

  29. The Whole Foods in my city purchases items from local farmers for resale. I’m really pleased that Whole Foods buys local meats, produce and dairy because I want to buy from my local farmer but can’t always get to the farmers markets. Even though I’m buying from a chain grocer, I know where the food came from and who farmed it – some of them are right down the street from my house.

    It was really hard for me to swallow the price tags at first. I was used to getting a dozen eggs on sale for $1.29 and paying $3.99 for a gallon of milk. Now I’m paying $8 for a dozen eggs and $4.69 for a half gallon of milk (I won’t even mention my $2.99 cup of yogurt). I can justify the prices knowing that the money is going to local families practicing good farming and that we are eating the best quality foods. I still cringe a little when I see the total on the cash register, though.

  30. April Abate-Adams

    Hi Lisa, One questions I have always had about purchasing eggs directly from a farm is whether or not there is a greater chance that the eggs could carry salmonella (i.e. an egg processing plant is likely subject to more inspections than a family farm). Do you have any insight into this? I would like a little more education on this issue.

    1. Hi April, I hope you don’t mind me chiming in, here, but I wanted to give you perspective from a small farmer: we are governed by the NC egg law and can be inspected at ANY time, even at the farmers’ market (which I have experienced) and so to the original issue: I think a small producer’s eggs are LESS likely, if they use good practices, to carry salmonella, than a large industrial sized-commercial chicken egg warehouse. Think of it this way, a chicken lays an egg in a large factory farm. The egg travels some ways to get processed. Then it is washed (with what? we don’t know) and put through a “grader” to determine weight (=size) and then packaged. USUALLY the eggs found in the grocery store are already weeks old by the time they’ve been washed, sorted, packaged and THEN sit in a warehouse. They can be UP TO 8-10 weeks old by the time YOU, the consumer, get them. Here, at my farm, we collect eggs twice a day, we only sell the clean eggs (we don’t wash them – why wash off what mother nature provided as a protective barrier, to keep OUT germs?)and by the time they get to the consumer they MIGHT be one week old. Bigger does not always = safer. Best regards,
      Sheila – aka: farmhousewife of Hope Farms

  31. Love this. I will say though that we have backyard chickens, which we let free roam and eat grass, and we can crack eggs next to each other and have them look like the pic above. It has to do with breed as well. Color IS affected by their diet, but I’d say your two above could both still be pastured. The difference that I’ve noticed is really with conventional eggs versus pastured – it looks more like the really really pale yellow versus more of a bright yellow or vibrant orange. Hope that helps! Just so people know they may still be getting great eggs even if they aren’t orange.
    Oh also the pastured egg yokes stand up more and have a thicker ring of egg white around them, between the yoke and the thinner egg white.

  32. We used to face the dilemma of either buying really expensive pastured local eggs or getting them from a cheaper source where they got some feed that was possibly GMO. So, we got our own chickens about 4 years ago. We live in town on a average lot (1/5th of an acre) so ten chickens is perfect for our family. We figure with feed costs that our eggs come out to about $2.25-$2.50 per dozen and we can pretty much eat all we want, at least in spring and fall when they’re more plentiful. The kids love having chickens so it has been a win/win situation for us.

  33. At my whole foods I see signs for ‘no soy’ in eggs… what’s that about? Is there soy in some eggs? Are some chickens fed soy? Are chickens supposed to eat soy?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hello Crystal. Yes, soy is often an ingredient in chicken feed. Chickens are omnivores and tend to eat bugs, grasses, and grains. ~Amy