If eggs are a regular staple in your household, you’ve probably noticed that the price of a dozen eggs appears to have doubled in the last year or so. An outbreak of avian influenza – also known as bird flu – killed millions of egg-laying chickens nationwide, leading to a serious egg shortage. While grocery stores are no longer out of eggs, the higher prices remain.
The cost of a dozen grade-A eggs at a typical grocery store can range from $3.00 to a whopping $10.00. Considering eggs cost more than ever, are the more expensive eggs worth it? What do the labels on the egg carton even mean? There are common misconceptions about egg labeling, so let’s crack the code to the meaning of common egg carton labels.
Eggs are graded on a scale of AA, A or B. Eggs are graded on appearance and the firmness of the white with AA being the highest quality. Typically, supermarket eggs are graded A, which is fine for baking and cooking.
While cage-free may sound like an improvement in the treatment of chickens, it simply means that the chickens are not kept in cages. They may still be packed tight in confined hen houses with no access to the outdoors or daylight.
Eggs labeled free-range are produced by chickens that must have access to the outdoors at least six hours per day and have two square feet of space per bird. There are no requirements regarding the conditions of the outdoor space.
Pasture-raised eggs are produced by chickens that have been raised in a vegetation-covered pasture with 108 square feet per chicken for a minimum of six hours per day. Chickens are fed only grains without animal byproducts and are free to eat the insects and seeds in their natural environment. Pasture-raised eggs are Humane Farm Animal Care certified, a non-profit certification organization.
Due to the superior diet of pasture-raised chickens, the eggs they produce are known to have better flavor and substantially greater nutritional value, including more vitamin D, vitamin A, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E.
Organic certification is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture and means that chickens have access to the outdoors and are fed a feed that does not contain genetically modified organisms, antibiotics or animal byproducts.
As with certified organic eggs, eggs labeled antibiotic-free came from hens that haven’t received antibiotics in their feed or water according to the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association. However, these eggs may not qualify for an organic certification due to other factors.
Natural or Farm-fresh
Terms like “natural” and “farm fresh” are unregulated. These terms may be added to food labels, including the packaging of eggs, but do not impart any important meaning or value.
Overall, eggs are a nutrient-dense food; however, omega-3-enriched and lutein-enhanced eggs are likely the best eggs for their extra nutritional value. Nutrient enrichment and enhancement of eggs is a separate label from those related to the treatment of hens.
There are important factors to consider when choosing the best eggs for you and your family. More nutritious eggs from humanely treated hens may have the best taste, but also the highest price. These are all important factors to consider when purchasing eggs. Keep in mind that savings may be achieved when purchasing cartons of 18 eggs instead of a dozen. Shop around and compare prices at different markets and use coupons to get the best price. If any of your neighbors have chickens, you may be able to score a good deal or a barter for fresh, local eggs.
LeeAnn Weintraub, MPH, RD is a registered dietitian, providing nutrition counseling and consulting to individuals, families and organizations. She can be reached by email at RD@halfacup.com.