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


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. My husband and I visited Germany over the summer and stayed part of the time with some friends, and part of the time in a hotel. We noticed the bright orange color of the yolks at our friends home but didn’t know why! At the time we attributed it to a different diet (purely from location) but looking back I recognize the hotel eggs were a normal yellow. Thanks for helping me see the difference! A friend of mine promised to show me around our local farmers market this week and I am SO excited!

  2. Our local farmer’s market does not have only locally grown produce. They start too early to have locally grown. When I don’t have to work, I go to Trade Day and get some good home-grown eggs. They have the deep-colored yolks and they make better cakes. I grew up eating eggs from our own chickens, and there’s no comparison.

    1. Florida has funny laws about eggs. If you find them at the farmers market, they will be labeled eggs for animal consumption. I asked once and they are just fine for humans too :) but Florida won’t let them be sold as that. It has something to do with the process they have to go through, but I can’t remember the details.

  3. i raise organic fed, free range chickens and let me tell you, my girls yolks are a rich golden color. Store brought ones are pale. A diet high In Greens produce rich looking yolks .

  4. Great post! I have been buying the best choice of eggs at my super market for the past few years when they are available. I noticed a big difference in colour and flavour from the regular eggs. This week I contacted a farmer that I found online who will actually deliver fresh eggs to my door twice a month for the same price as the organic grocery store eggs that are from chickens who live in a barn. I get my first delivery on Monday and am excited to try them and see the difference!

  5. I once got some eggs at a farmers market that, when we opened them, were a scary greenish color. There were several in the dozen (we threw those away) and we wondered if this meant the chicken was ill or something? Does anyone know about that? The market was fairly far from home and we didn’t go back out to ask the farmer, but I wish we had! It made me a little leery about the farmers market eggs, even though this was the first time we had any problem.

    1. I’m not a professional chicken person but I get eggs from my cousin who raises her own chickens and the eggs very in color depending what chicken laid them and I’ve had some green eggs, have been told they’re even cholesterol free.

    2. Sharon, you said “I once got some eggs at a farmers market that, when we opened them, were a scary greenish color. There were several in the dozen (we threw those away) and we wondered if this meant the chicken was ill or something?” The eggs were perfectly fine honey

      In fact those are some of the best eggs in the bunch… at least according to my youngest daughter; they are known as Easter eggs. There are many different kinds of chickens and some lay colored eggs. I have eaten, tan, brown, blue, green & white all from the same seller. If you are going to buy fresh, you will find they will vary… sometimes in size too because nor all farm sellers “Grade” their eggs, meaning you might get a few small and an extra large in the dozen box lol

    3. Thanks for the responses — I can see now that my question was misleading! I meant when I opened a few of the eggs, the white and yolks inside were murky-greenish…I actually love all the colored shells and almost hate to break those open, they’re so pretty. Hopefully that won’t happen again! One reason I crack each egg into a dish first, en add to what I’m making after I’m sure it looks okay.

      1. I admit I used google, but here is what I found.

        Q: The whites of my chickens’ eggs are a funny color–what does that mean?
        A: Cloudy whites in a farm egg are usually indicative of its freshness. The cloudiness is caused by dissolved carbon dioxide in the white, which eventually escapes through the shell in older eggs. If the white of the egg is greenish, that usually means there is too much riboflavin in the diet. Make sure they are getting balanced nutrition. Eating acorns, shepherds purse or some types of weeds can cause that greenish tinge, too. Pinkish whites are caused by some types of weeds a chicken may get into, or high quantities of cottonseed meal in the diet.

  6. Now is the time of year you can buy baby chicks if your municipality allows backyard poultry. My three hens give more than a dozen eggs per week!

    1. i think this is a great idea but may I just add….please do your homework on raising hens before picking them up at the market. I’m definitely no expert,(know nothing about it to be honest) but I’ve seen where hens can develope certain health issues (like being egg bound, bumble foot, etc) so having the knowledge will help keep your girls healthy, happy and productive!

  7. It’s important to note that chickens are not vegetarians. Their natural diet is eating bugs and insects in the grass. I always steer clear of eggs that claim they are from chickens fed a “vegetarian diet” because to me this means the chickens don’t have access to land. And while I’m okay with chickens getting some grains, we also have to be concerned about what kind of grains they are being fed. I buy eggs from a local Amish farm and they are fed a non-GMO and soy free grain (and surprisingly their yolks are quite pale).

  8. I was using pastured eggs but started noticing blood in them and could not bring myself to eat them any more. What causes this condition in eggs and is it safe to consume?

    1. My experience of blood in the eggs is a result of having laying hens that ran free throughout most of the year. Basically anything that frightens the chickens can cause this problem. If a frightening incident happened ( a loud tractor starting up in their vicinity could be enough) I would tend to see several eggs with blood spots later that day or the following day. The eggs are fresh and healthful to eat but I admit the blood spots are not really appetizing. One of the things you must come to expect if you want the best eggs you can buy.

    2. Not a professional on this one, by any means, but blood spots can occur when blood or a bit of tissue is released along with a yolk. Each developing yolk in a hen’s ovary is enclosed in a sack that contains blood vessels. The blood vessles supply yolk building substances. When the yolk is mature, it is normally released from the stigma, which is free of blood vessels. Sometimes, the yolk sac ruptures at a different location, causing blood vessels to break and blood to appear inside the egg. It isn’t harmful to eat. :) Hope this helps! By the way, your local Extension Office can help you with advice on things like this and other information on agricultural related things. Most states have an online website that you can go to to read publication or you can walk right into your county office. Just look up “________” Extension Service in your search engine. For instance, here in Alabama its the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

  9. Katlin Stewardson

    We have our own chickens. They live in a very large coop (probably 120 sq ft of ground space and 12-14 ft tall) and we have 7. Although they are not pastured, we let them out once a week. Their eggs are much more delicious than store bought eggs! They also have a richer color to the yolk.

  10. New to this but that means if the hens eat gmo corn feed but are pastured chickens we should still not consume them? My friend has chickens but found out they eat gmo corn. :-( This was my egg source.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Heather. That is entirely up to you. Sorry to cloud up what you thought was the ideal thing. ;)

  11. Many flax seed meal packages have the recipe for the “egg”. Bobs Red Mill is one and it’s in their website too. For one egg use 1 Tbsp flax seed meal with 3 Tbsp water and let sit for 5 minutes. Add to wet ingredients. This is only to replace eggs in baked goods.

  12. Researching Mama

    I’m not sure if this is mentioned in earlier comments, but I feel it is important to note and even warrants a correction in the original post: yolk color is determined almost entirely by the bird’s diet, not by whether or not the egg is pasteurized.
    Yolks can range from blood-red to white, based on what the bird is fed. Most buyers prefer a yellow yolk, so farmers (commercial OR organic) may add naturally occurring plants (such as marigolds) to enhance the color. In fact, to dissuade your readers from erroneously choosing their eggs based on color, consider this: according to Dr. Hilary Shallo Thesmar, director of food safety programs for the Egg Nutrition Center (ENC), “Richer-colored egg yolks are more likely to come from free-range hens,” because “Free-range hens have the opportunity to eat more pigmented foods, and the pigment is then transferred to the yolk.”
    I love science, so I could go on and the naturally occurring pigment-makers in chicken feed, but the articles cited below are succinct and sufficient. Please check it out and PLEASE amend your post so your well-informed readers can stay that way! :)
    I frequently use this site as a source of information and inspiration, as I’m sure others do, and I think providing accurate facts should be a priority. That being said, thank you for all of your information and delicious recipes!


    1. It looks like you did not actually read this article. She is clearly saying that PASTURED eggs produce the darker yolks. That is not the same as pasteurized. Pastured is a term that refers to the hens that are living in grass, able to eat grass and bugs (their natural diet), thus creating a darker yolk. When you see the term “pastured” it IS referring to the diet of the hens. It means they are eating a pastured diet.

  13. We buy ours from friends that raise chickens and allow them to roam free in the pasture as well as to eat the sand and grit that is healthy for them. We never buy store bought eggs any more. You can taste the difference. Much healthier.

  14. I buy my eggs from the local health food store…the owner gets them from local farmers. Everything about these eggs are better than the ones in the grocery store. When the store runs out I go without because I refuse to buy the sick eggs in the grocery store.

  15. I don’t buy or eat eggs anymore.. I grind golden flax seed and add water to make an all natural “egg”.

    1. Molly, could you tell me more about your flax seed “egg”? I have never heard of this before. Thanks

  16. I buy pastured eggs, have only been doing so for a couple of months from the farmers market, they are not much dearer than free range supermarket eggs. I used to buy the cheapest eggs i could until seeing an article on caged birds & their poor feet, they were pecking themselves & very unhappy. I hadn’t eaten eggs for asmalm while before this as when i cooked them for my family i could smell a terrible smell, like rotten flesh & chicken poo, i thought it was just a mental thing, then learnt that eggs absorb odour. I was disgusted that this smell was what the eggs & chickens were in. I am horrified that caged chickens are legal & that nobody cares😢it’s crazy & soooo mean!!!

  17. I purchase my eggs from a local farmer who pastures his chickens. The taste and color is different than the eggs bought in the store, which is why I started buying them. I am also raising chickens but they are not old enough to start laying yet. We plan to allow our to roam free during the day and pen them up at night to reduce the chance of predator attacks.

  18. We have six happy hens in our suburban backyard. I love watching them eat worms and grass, it means lots of nutritious eggs for us!

  19. I am vegetarian for humanitarian reasons. When I learned that most farmers, even those who raise hens humanely, kill them and eat them when they no longer are able to produce eggs, I struck up a conversation with with the backyard farmer whose little stand I get my eggs from. I now have the peace of mind that his “older ladies” still roam freely around his lovely lawn with the “young girls,” enjoying their retirement. I’m grateful for Michael Pollan’s suggestion to visit my food supplier.

  20. This post was very helpful. The descriptions on egg cartens are confusing! i buy eggs at the local farmer’s market during the season. Otherwise i buy “farm raised cage free” i was once told by a local chicken farmer…that grocery store eggs are often as old as a year.. that storage and production keeps them “fresh” for commercial sales. what do you know about that?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Stacy. I can’t tell you how old the store bought eggs are but they are no where near “fresh”. ~Amy

  21. We buy eggs from the farmer’s markets during the “season”, but I have been buying “cage-free” at the grocery in the late fall to early spring when the markets close. Thanks for this post – I will have to ask the woman at the stall I buy from where I can get their eggs outside of the farmer’s market.

  22. I meant “are saying is correct, because my family members are chicken farmers for a corporation.”

  23. I don’t live near any farmer’s markets or fresh egg sources. I buy regular store eggs because the “better” eggs are too expensive for our budget. We are still transitioning to real food. But I already know what you ate saying is correct my family members are chicken farmers in Delaware.

  24. The color of the egg yolk was one of the first things I noticed about buying fresh eggs. And it does make a difference. Thanks for this clarification, there are so many labels on things nowadays it is so hard to keep them straight, especially when some aren’t regulated and businesses can say whatever they want to try to trick us!

  25. I’m buying Vital Farms (at Whole Foods), they’re non-GMO certified, Humanely raised certified and pasture raised. And the yolks are a beautiful orange! They do cost more, but the quality is definitively worth it.

  26. We raise our own & supply for several families. Yolks are dark orange. My mom won’t eat them bc they are “strong.” Not everyone loves the taste of our “yardbird” eggs. 😉

  27. I don’t buy eggs often because we have hens. I only buy during the winter when egg production goes down naturally. My hens are offered layer food and water and free range our yard. We treat them like pets rather than egg machines. They are happy birds who give us delightfully orange yoked eggs, which taste more egg like than store bought pale yoked egss. When I have to buy eggs from the store, I don’t like any of the ones I buy.

  28. I buy from a local lady that raises chickens. She lets me know when she has a surplus and I get some pretty regularly! If she does not have enough to sell then I buy organic at the grocery store. I can tell a difference is both look and taste with the farm eggs winning every time!

  29. We raise our own chickens… we have five on a half acre plot. They roam freely and have become our pets. I love a fresh egg and have become an egg snob now. I can hardly eat an egg for breakfast that isn’t “fresh” Happy chickens produce happy healthy eggs!

  30. I also live out of the country and our eggs are definitely that bright orange color but I have a hard time believing that the eggs in this country are raised in a pasture and free to roam! (We live in a super dirty and super populated country). So is the orange color the only determining factor that my eggs are healthier or are there other ways you can tell?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Angel. There are more and more farms that are pasture raising their chickens because more people are demanding it. Besides being more orange, the yolk will be firm and the egg will have more flavor. ~Amy

  31. We currently live in Japan and the thing I noticed first about groceries was how dark orange all the egg yolks are. We love it. Most in the grocery stores are like this, but they are especially dark orange from the farmers market and the vending machines

    1. Gwen, I would consult a doctor or naturopathy specialist on this one because this totally and completely depends on WHY you have a food intolerance to eggs. Organic might not make a difference at all if it has something to do with protein strands.

  32. I get so frustrated when it comes to eggs… it just sounds like Big Food is trying to skirt around as much as possible and provide the bare minimum of nutrition as required by the USDA. We live in a very urban area where Farmer’s Markets are hard to come by… even the one we are close to doesn’t even sell eggs. And one “farmer” uses pesticides on their produce.
    It’s all so frustrating. But thanks for this post… once we move out of this area, we plan on making some big changes.

  33. Ok, so someone I know gave us some eggs from their chickens, and we HATED them. They were soooo gamey and just overall gross. I’ve had pastured eggs in the past and growing up and they didn’t taste differently at all. Please tell me, do they have to be fertilized to be truly pastured? My husband’s dad had a farm and he had laying hens with no rooster and the taste was fine.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Robyn. I think you must have just gotten a bad batch. My experience has been that the eggs are a richer flavor but very good. ~Amy

  34. We buy local pastured eggs. Eventually I’d love to have my own chickens but that’s not possible just yet.

  35. I don’t have to buy eggs because I raise my own chickens. I love it!! Can definitely taste the difference!