I get that question a lot. And I’ll share my answer…
But first, a pop quiz.
A man walks into a grocery store carrying a list of one item: Eggs.
Before leaving the house, the man’s partner had given him very specific instructions: “Get the healthiest ones they have.”
Now, standing in an egg section the size of a small elephant, the man has a critical decision to make.
Which eggs does he choose?
C. All natural
D. Omega-3 enriched
G. Purple polka-dotted
Well? Time’s tickin’! (And angry shoppers are lining up behind you.)
Eggs truly are one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet—at least if you eat the yolks. You do eat the yolks, right?
Plus, even if you buy the priciest ones on the shelf, they’re still a tremendous deal, considering the nutrient-to-cost ratio compared to other protein sources.
That’s why, with eggs, splurging on the best is totally worth it.
Yeah, I know. It’s easy to think: “Eight dollars for a carton? Ridiculous!”
Thing is though, that carton contains a nice quantity of versatile, high-quality, nutrient-dense food.
AND not all eggs are created equal.
AND lots of labels are unconscionably misleading.
Let’s take a look…
“Free-range” sounds good, right?
Yeeahhh. Sorry to ruin any visions of chickens frolicking “free” in the farmyard. But all they need to earn that stamp is some access to the outside (even if for a very limited time and even if “outside” means a patch of dust outside the door of a cramped chicken cage.
Put simply, “free-range” says nothing meaningful about hens’ living conditions or the quality of their food and state of their health. (Well, except for indicating that those probably aren’t stellar, or else they’d get a higher-shelf label).
Eh, no. Turns out “cage-free” lacks a legal definition entirely (meaning, it holds even less regulatory clout than “free-range”).
Basically, “cage-free” hens don’t live in, well, metal cages. They likely do, however, reside in packed henhouses.
Although chickens called “cage-free” often receive better food and treatment than those living in conventional coops, it’s hard to know what you’re getting based on that label. Most have no access to the outdoors and quite possibly receive abysmal food and treatment.
And “all natural”?
Nope. Even less significance. “All natural” simply means non-artificial. In other words, if it’s an egg laid by hens, it’s “all natural.” (If it’s laid by cyborg hens, I’m not sure what designation applies.)
What’s that you say? Your hen was given unnatural feed, antibiotics and steroids while living in a cramped cage? Yep. Still “all natural.”
How about omega-3 enriched?
Hmm…this gets complicated. On the one hand, most “omega-3 enriched” eggs are from organic hens. They’re often better choices than their mass-produced conventional cousins for that reason alone.
They earn their “omega-3 enriched” (or “fortified”) stamp because they come from birds fed flaxseed, linseed or a direct supplement. The healthy fats these contain can find their way to you through consumption of the enriched eggs…but in varying amounts.
What’s more, seeds aren’t the best source of omega-3 fats and are higher in potentially inflammatory omega-6. So while these eggs might be okay, I wouldn’t rely on them as your main source of omega-3 (wild salmon’s a far superior choice).
Is there an egg we can trust?
Yes! Pasture-raised (also called “pastured”) eggs are an excellent pick (and typically the most expensive). These eggs come from hens with access to fresh air, grass and insects.
Sometimes they’re kept in stationary pens. And sometimes they’re kept in floor-less pens that are moved around a green pasture throughout the day (keeping hens safe from kitties, foxes and such).
Oh, and let’s be clear: Chickens ARE NOT VEGETARIANS. They love pecking around for bugs to eat and DO NOT thrive on vegetarian chicken feed.
Why’s that matter? Well, thriving chickens are happy, healthy chickens (and far healthier food choices for the humans that eat them).
But wait—what about organic?
Organic’s not bad (though pasture-raised is still the winner if they’re going beak-to-beak).
Hens producing organic eggs are fed organic feed and only given antibiotics in instances of disease outbreak. They’re also allowed some outdoor access (though this might be limited to a door on their henhouse or cage).
In other words, organic eggs are definitely a healthier choice than mass-produced conventional ones. Still, they aren’t necessarily the most healthful option.
Now, if they’re pasture-raised AND organic? Score—we’ve got a winner!
Whew. That’s a lot. And Confused Pop Quiz Man is still standing in the egg section (now with several impatient shoppers crowding behind him).
So, in short form, what’s the answer to our question?
In truth, to bring home the best, healthiest eggs possible, our guy would have skipped the store entirely…and instead found a local owner of pasture-raised chickens.
Yep. The best eggs are local and pasture-raised (plus organic—even if not certified).
Wait—not fair! Trick question!
Okay, okay. If you’re stuck standing in the store with The List, best-to-worst egg options go this way:
- Pasture-raised (aka, pastured): These guys get the gold star. If they’re organic, all the better.
- Organic: These are pesticide-free and from chickens with at least some access to the outdoors. They’re a good second choice (though, if choosing between organic and pasture-raised, go with the latter).
- Omega-3 enriched: These were likely raised on a sub-optimal grain-based diet but are still okay in the absence of other organic or pastured options.
- Conventional: Look—these aren’t ideal. But if you can’t find the others, they’ll do in a pinch (and still offer a nutrient-dense, inexpensive source of protein).
Oh, and if you can source purple polka-dotted eggs? Definitely choose those. No question.