Clean Eating Buyer's Guide for Eggs
Choosing eggs has gotten pretty complicated. First, there's color. While you may find some pretty eggs, especially from small farms or at the farmers' market, there's no inherent nutritional or taste difference. The hen's breed determines the egg color.
Then, there are labels. If you're buying eggs at a supermarket, you may see the following terms on the carton. (If you're buying from a farm or farmers' market, ask the farmer about the chickens' diet and welfare.)
See: Healthy Egg Recipes
Per the USDA, these eggs come from hens that are housed in a "building, room or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water and provides freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle." There are no requirements for the minimum amount of space per hen or any outdoor access, or for comforts like perches or nest boxes.
Most egg cartons have a "sell by" or "packed on" date printed on the end. Eggs stored in their carton in the refrigerator should be safe to eat for four to five weeks after they were packed, and for a couple of weeks after the "sell by" date.
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Refers to the quality of the egg. Most consumers won't notice much of a difference among the grades. You'll most likely see Grade A or AA, which means the shells are unstained, the yolks are free from defects and the eggs have a "reasonably" clear and thick white. Grade B usually go to institutional egg users, such as food-service kitchens and commercial bakeries.
Refers to the weight of whole eggs per dozen. (EatingWell almost always calls for large eggs in recipes.)
The USDA defines free-range eggs as eggs that come from hens housed in a building, room or area that allows for unlimited access to food, water and the outdoors during their laying cycle. The outdoor area may be fenced or covered with netting-like material. As with cage-free, there are no minimum space requirements or "furnishings," nor any standards for how hens can exit the building.
Hens are uncaged, free to roam in their houses and have access to the outdoors. They eat an organic diet. But there are no animal welfare standards beyond that. And 80 percent of organic eggs are currently produced in industrial-style farms where hens have little access to the outside (sometimes only a small covered "porch"), says a Cornucopia Institute report. The USDA has a proposed rule pending with more guidance on living conditions and animal treatment.
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Farmers are not allowed to give hormones to hens, so this label can only be used if it is followed by a statement like "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones," which can be in tiny print or indicated by an asterisk somewhere else on the package.
Producers must provide the USDA with documentation proving the hens are raised without antibiotics. Most well-managed facilities don't use antibiotics, say poultry experts, because the drugs would get into the eggs, which is prohibited. It's common, however, to vaccinate hens against contagious diseases.
United Egg Producers Certified
UEP is the egg companies' trade group and stipulates how birds are handled, transported, euthanized, etc. It certifies over 80 percent of caged birds, so this seal pretty much means the chickens are treated as they have always been treated. For example, hens can be raised in as little as 67 square inches of space each (that's a little larger than an 8-inch square).
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American Humane Certified
The American Humane Association certifies egg producers with its own standards for caged, cage-free and enriched colony housing (a type of cage that contains perches, scratch pads and nest boxes). They're better than UEP standards, but not as rigorous as those of other animal welfare groups.
Humane Farm Animal Care requires no cages (ever). Hens must be able to dust-bathe, perch and have secluded nest boxes, among other requirements. Each hen has at minimum 1 square foot of space.
Animal Welfare Approved
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These are the most rigorous standards. All birds are cage-free and get at least 4 square feet each and have continuous outdoor access. The maximum flock size is 500 birds and only family farms can participate (the family owns the birds, works the farm and makes all or part of their livelihood from the hens).
Laid by hens that are fed a special diet with added omega-3 fatty acids from flaxseed. The eggs provide a range of omega-3s, from 100 mg to over 600 mg per egg. (For comparison, 3 ounces of salmon has about 1,200 mg omega-3s.)
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These eggs are heated in their shells to a temperature just high enough to destroy pathogens like Salmonella. If you want to consume them raw, pasteurized eggs are a smart choice.
There are no specific guidelines or third-party audits for "pasture-raised," nor is it USDA-regulated.
Nothing is added to eggs, so all eggs are "natural," says the USDA.
Some third parties have stipulations around vegetarian feed, but the term isn't USDA-regulated. Plus, chickens are omnivores, so eating bugs, worms or even small animals is natural (and key for certain nutrients).
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