Cage-Free, Free-Range, and Humanely Raised Eggs

Multi-Colored Eggs
These multi-colored eggs come from different breeds of hens. Schedivy Pictures Inc/Getty Images

An egg is an egg, right? Not so much. When you're on a low-carb diet you may be more attuned to how the food you eat makes it to your table. Lots of new labels are popping up on eggs that can be confusing and misleading. These terms include cage-free, free-range, humanely raised, Omega-3, pasture-raised among others. What do these terms mean? Do they make a difference in the nutritional value or edibility of eggs themselves?

Why Are These New Kinds of Eggs Becoming Popular?

Ever since people started becoming aware of the conditions in which laying hens are "traditionally" kept in the U.S. (crammed into so-called " battery cages" packed so closely they can barely move for almost all of their lives, and forced to endure other practices that most people find inhumane), alternatives are becoming increasingly popular. Hence the differentiation in terms. In Europe, they are phasing cages out of egg production altogether. But that's not yet the case here at home.

Are the Hens Really Better off in These New Conditions?

There is no doubt that they are better off when comparing their "normal" condition. However, the images that the terms "cage-free" and "free-range" bring to mind to most people are pretty far from the reality of most chickens, whether laying hens or those used for meat.

Who Regulates These Labels?

There is very little actual regulation for these labels and thus they have become marketing terms that carry little to no weight in explaining and consumers hope, differentiate between the many offerings available. But, there are some definitions published by the USDA which are called "Trade Descriptions." Although they are voluntary, apparently most poultry farms conform to these standards.

Cage-Free Eggs

This simply means that the hens are not kept in cages, though there are no regulations to govern care beyond that. They may be kept in crowded barns with no access to the outdoors, much like batting "barns" instead of cages.

Free-Range Eggs

Free-range chickens are (according to voluntary regulations) supposed to have "access to the outdoors" — however, by many reports, the care of many of these hens is structured so that they are very unlikely to go outside. The doors are not opened until the hens are of an age where they are likely to keep doing what they are used to doing, and when the (usually small) doors are opened, they usually don't go outside. Michael Pollan, in his best-selling book The Omnivore's Dilemma, describes one farm producing organic, free-range chickens for meat. He says that the chickens are "given outside access" at 5 weeks, then killed at 7 weeks. He never saw a chicken go outside during his visit.

Organic Eggs

There are regulations to govern what can be called organic. The chickens must be fed organic feed (grown without commercial fertilizers or pesticides), and not given hormones or antibiotics. This has nothing to do with how the animals are kept, however.

What Is "Humanely-Raised"?

This is a totally unregulated definition, although organizations are springing up to try to come up with common definitions. The most prominent organization, Humane Farm Animal Care, has a certification process, which includes no cages, and hens having at least 1.5 square feet of floor space. Free-range hens must have outside access, and doors to the outside "must allow more than one hen at a time to exit". De-beaking is allowed, but some of the more barbaric practices common to traditionally-raised hens (such as "forced molting" where hens nearly at the end of their laying are deprived of food, water, and light for days to weeks to produce one more bout of egg-laying) are not.

Pastured or Pasture-Raised Hens

According to the USDA Trade Descriptions, "birds are raised outdoors using movable enclosures located on grass and fed an organic diet (without hormones or non-organic additives) and/or raised without antibiotics (drugs that are intended to prevent or treat animal illnesses)".

The advantage to pasture-raised eggs is that the hens are able to eat a wide variety of the natural food of chickens — greens, grubs, etc. Not only do many people find these eggs to be much tastier, but there is accumulating evidence that the eggs from these hens have better nutritional profiles — less cholesterol, less fat but more healthy Omega-3 fat, and more of other nutrients such as Vitamin A, lutein, vitamin E, and beta-carotene.

Omega-3 Eggs

Eating out in the pasture is not the only way to increase Omega-3 fats in the eggs — some hens are fed flax seed, which also dramatically increases the amount of omega-3 fat in the yolks of the eggs.

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