Honestly, egg carton labels seem a bit scrambled to me. In fact, they get me boiling mad. Ok, enough of the puns! It truly is hard to decipher what the labels on egg cartons really mean! Let's talk about some of the most common catchwords on egg cartons.
I've never seen eggs labeled as conventional eggs. I suppose it's not really a good marketing phrase, but these are your standard supermarket Eggs. Hens producing these eggs are typically confined to battery cages. They never see the light of day or have enough room to turn around, or stretch their wings.
This term means chickens are not in cages; period. It does not mean they are outside. They are most often confined in close quarters- the average size of a cage-free flock is 25,000- inside some type of a building.
This catchword conjures up images of chickens roaming on a grassy range. Sadly, it does not necessarily mean that a chicken has ever actually been outside of the hen house. It has become more of a marketing gimmick, due to the fact that the term has few meaningful requirements. The actual requirements are essentially this: hens must have access to outside their building for more than 51% of their life. Unfortunately, there are no regulations as to how much access, the size of access, the quality of the outside space, or the duration of outside exposure. So for example, this could mean that there are thousands of chickens confined in close quarters with a small 12x12 inch door to a few measly feet of dirt outside. As you can imagine, most of the chickens may never even be aware of the fact that there is access to the great outdoors. In addition, the sheer number of chickens in the enclosure would make accessing the opening on a frequent basis unlikely. The outside space for 25,000 chickens would also need to be quite large, or the quality of the outdoor space would be quickly compromised.
Omega 3 Eggs
This only means that the hen's food has been supplemented with an omega 3 source: usually flax seeds. While it is true that flax seeds are an omega 3 source, it is also important to note that they are a phytoestrogen. This means, if you over-do it in the flax seed department, the phytoestrogen could really mess with your hormones. Take my uncle, for instance, who jumped on the flax seed mania wagon; he grew breasts.
I hear a lot about getting more Omega fatty acids. It is important to note, that if you are eating healthy saturated fats, your body actually needs very little omega-3 because saturated fats make certain that the omega-3s are used very effectively and conserved in the tissues. You don’t need to add extra omega-3s to your diet, in fact an abundance of omega 3s can be harmful. And you definitely don’t need to worry about getting enough omega-6, as they are in many foods. The thing we should worry about is getting a more equal ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids. The problem is, the standard American and Western diet contains much more Omega 6 than Omega 3, so we feel like we have to supplement with Omega 3 to get a more equal ratio. A better solution is to avoid processed foods and polyunsaturated oils that tend to be high in Omega 6 fatty acids, as well as focusing on animal fats from organic and pastured animals which also has an effect on the omega 3 to omega 6 ratios.
The basic requirement for certified organic eggs is that the chickens have not been given antibiotics, or hormones. They must be fed organic feed. They are also required to be cage-free and have access to the outdoors, unfortunately this does not necessarily mean that they actually spend time outdoors. They could be free-range chickens that never actually go outside, but are given organic feed.
Eggs are natural. Hens lay eggs. As silly as it might seem, this is all it really means. Eggs naturally come from chickens and other oviparous animals.
Farm fresh does not mean that the farmer plucked the egg from under the hen and rushed it to to grocery store. It sounds nice, but it doesn't really mean anything.
Yes, chickens do peck at fresh growing greens, but the reality is they are also carnivores: They eat bugs! If they are vegetarian fed, can we assume they have not been out-of-doors to scratch and feed on unsuspecting bugs? Again, another marketing gimmick to entice us to purchase a particular brand.
For the time being, this is the lingo farmers are using to indicate that their chickens are raised in a natural environment with real access to the outdoors; eating bugs, plants and scratching in the dirt. The supplemental feed is not required to be organic. The pasture space is also not regulated. Some pastures may be spacious, where chickens may be rotated to different areas and others may be overrun with chickens, resulting in few growing greens, as well as depleted insects, bugs and worms. As always, the best practice is talk to the farmer and if you are able, check out the farm. Ask lots of questions and make sure that you are getting what you think you're paying for.
Why do we care so much about how chickens are treated? Frankly, most people don't. What matters is their pocket book and how cheaply they can get a dozen eggs. Aside from cruelty to animals, let's look at how it affects us.
Filthy and unnatural conditions encourage disease and bacteria. Over crowded hen houses are filthy and unnatural. Salmonella is more likely to proliferate in an unsanitary environment.
Eggs are one of the most allergenic foods. Unsanitary and unnatural living conditions, an unnatural diet, air quality, antibiotics, hormones, and stress are all factors that can compromise the quality of an egg, in turn, we are directly affected.
When hens are truly pasture raised, their eggs are a rich source of nutrients, with almost 4x the vitamin E, almost 8x the beta carotene, 3x the omega 3, 1 1/2x the vitamin A. Eggs from chickens that are not pasture raised are not nearly as nutrient dense. The nutritional quality of an egg is significantly affected by the hen's diet, health and living conditions.
The Cost of Eggs
The cost of eggs is more than just the price of a dozen. When we do not use organic and traditional practices in both agable (crops) and pastoral (animal) agriculture, it affects our soil, our water, our air quality and the health of our own bodies. It matters.