By Adrienne Wichard-Edds, photography by Molly McDonald Peterson / Chick photos & Cover photographed at Buc~A~Buc Farm
Nine years ago, after the birth of my first son meant that I was responsible for the nutrition of another life form, I began educating myself on the reasons to eat organic, local, and grass-fed. “You better not mess this up” was the sign that flashed above every jar of baby food. Our family of four goes through two dozen eggs a week, and my fingers are numb from sorting through the options in the egg case. Should I buy the brand-name, all-natural, vegetarian-fed, cage- and antibiotic-free, omega-3-enriched eggs, or the store brand organic version that doesn’t boast omega-3s? The nutrition fact panels on both cartons are identical.
Between choosing the source and trying to calculate which eggs offer the most bang for the buck, I was having, as a friend called it, an eggsistential crisis.
I decided to let a laboratory solve my dilemma. I would simply compare the nutritional content on each egg carton—conventional, cage-free, free-range, organic, and pastured—then weigh those findings against price, environmental, and humane considerations, all of which would lead me to the perfect egg. Simple, right?
Not really. The nutrition content of eggs fluctuates from hen to hen, farm to farm, season to season. Those labels on the carton? They are calculated from eggs from multiple conventional farms chosen at random around the United States. The USDA “pools” the contents of several dozen eggs from two geographically disparate locations—say, Washington state and Georgia—and tests the nutritional value of the entire pool. The combined findings from dozens of different sites end up on the nutrition fact panel, which becomes mandatory labeling for any commercial egg, regardless of type or origin.
So absent an independent nutritional analysis of each egg you eat (about $800 per egg), it’s nearly impossible to know what exactly is inside the shell. It is heavily influenced by what the hen eats.
Chickens are natural omnivores that forage for grasses, worms, bugs, and all manner of grains. At least, that is the diet of hens raised in a pasture. Hens raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) receive their meals on a conveyor belt. It’s a grain-based “mash” formulated from corn, soy, and supplements. Cage-free and some free-ranging hens are often given the same mash, which—unless it’s organic—can include antibiotics, pesticides, genetically modified grains, and animal byproducts. But pastured hens fill up on grass and bugs, and consume less of whatever mash they are given.
That gives their eggs a leg up, nutritionally speaking. A 2009 study at Penn State found that pastured hens’ eggs had significantly higher amounts of omega-3s and vitamins E and lower omega-6s than their mash-only counterparts. Mother Earth News showed similarly increased levels of omega-3, vitamins A and E, as well as a third less cholesterol, in a 2007 study.
Ken Anderson, a poultry scientist at North Carolina State University who works with the Egg Nutrition Council, conducted his own study in 2010. He also found increased omega-3 and vitamin A and E levels in pastured eggs, but, he says, not enough to merit the claim that they’re “more nutritious.” Advocates of caged-egg production say they can replicate the nutritional content of pastured eggs by manipulating feed.
Companies such as Eggland’s Best provide proprietary formulas to their franchisees; these production houses then turn out cartons with the Eggland’s Best brand and promise an egg with added health benefits. In addition to a handful of nutritional supplements, Pennsylvania- based Sauder’s Gold brand eggs adds marigold petals to its feed to yield a yolk that mimics the school bus-orange of a pastured egg, which obtains its color naturally from beta carotene in grass.
So the decision, it seems, is bounced back to the consumer: Do you prefer whole foods in their closest-to-natural form, or would you rather get your nutrition in scientifically formulated doses? Consider, too, the husbandry practices associated with raising hens, one of the great polarizing aspects of the egg debate. On one side are farmers who believe hens should be allowed to stretch their wings, roam freely and forage because it’s not only better for the health of the chicken and the environment, but also yields a better product for human consumption.
Then there are proponents of CAFOs who say that efficient egg production is necessary to meet the needs of a population that’s “addicted to chewing and swallowing food,” says Chad Gregory of the United Egg Producers, a lobbying organization for the egg industry. Gregory asserts that demand can only be met with factory-level efficiency, and to suggest otherwise is to deprive the egg-eating public of a cheap protein source.
Economical it may be, but it’s pretty easy even for the most value-minded consumer to be turned off by a caged-hen facility. A quick Internet search reveals plenty of footage of overcrowded battery cages dripping with feces and chicken workers wearing hazmat suits to protect themselves from the ammonia fumes and general squalor. Anyone who’s driven by an industrial chicken farm knows the telltale stench.
Even in the most pristine houses, current regulations require only 67 square inches of space per hen, with five to seven hens to a cage. Cages can be stacked 10 high, and feces and urine drop through the wire floors of the cages, hopefully onto conveyor belts where they’re removed from the facility and stored for composting (but it often ends up on other chickens). Beaks are clipped to prevent chickens from pecking each other to death.
The American Egg Board is trying to change that image through its Good Egg Project. Spurred by California’s Prop 2, a statute that prohibits confining farm animals in a way that prevents them from freely turning around, lying down, standing up, and fully extending their limbs, the Egg Board is working with the Humane Society to establish a new nationwide standard for chicken cages. These “enriched colony cages” will offer 127 square inches per bird, as well as areas to perch, peck, scratch and nest. Birds will still be confined to cages throughout their entire lives and beaks will still be clipped. Eggs from these facilities will cost an extra 2 to 3 cents per egg.
There is a growing demand for cage-free eggs. Cage-free facilities are less chicken-dense than CAFOs and hens can roam freely within a shed, but they are never exposed to the outdoors. Excrement is cleaned out of the barn between flock rotations, about once every 18 months. And there are other problems: Scott Akom of Glenwood Farms, a large-scale egg production and processing plant in Jetersville, Va., who raises both caged and cage-free hens, says free-walking chickens sometimes pile up in the corners of their confined space and suffocate each other.
Some industry proponents claim hens prefer the safety and warmth of confinement to the outdoors. Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, a consumer watchdog, rejects that notion.
“That’s bullsh*t. When I visit well-managed free-range farms, I see hens running, flapping their wings, clucking…I can only describe it as joyful. When the farmer opens the door to the mobile hen house in the mornings, birds come pouring out like a fire hose.”
Given the nutritional benefits and apparent preference of the chickens, why aren’t all hens pastured? The process is more expensive, labor intensive, harder to control, and at the mercy of the weather, explains Polyface Farm’s Joel Salatin, a godfather of the pastured egg movement.
Pastured eggs are hand-gathered and inspected. There is more flock loss to predators. Hens still need to be fed supplemental mash, and organic and soy-free feed is nearly twice as expensive as its genetically engineered counterpart. All of these costs and variables are reflected in the price, but no one is getting rich selling pastured eggs. Says Flavor director of photography Molly Peterson, also a farmer at Mount Vernon Farms in Sperryville, Va.: “We charge what it costs us to produce these eggs.”
“Who told us that our food is supposed to be cheap to begin with?” asks Forrest Pritchard of Smith Meadows farm in Berryville, Va. Cheap is clearly a relative term, but even at farmers market prices, a two-egg breakfast costs less than a dollar. Pritchard’s eggs are 39.5 cents each—less than the cost of one Safeway banana.
For those who are of the “pay the farmer, not the doctor” mindset, pastured eggs are a small investment in hedging their bets. Carole Morison, a former industrial chicken farmer who left after she was disgusted by the system, is turning her 14 acres in Maryland into a pastured-egg farm that was recently certified by Animal Welfare Approved. “I’d rather skip buying a soda or a candy bar,” says Morison, “and spend that extra dollar on my eggs.”
Matt O’Hayer of Texas-based Vital Farms, a pastured-egg organization that coordinates 14 farms around the country, borrows a line from Michael Pollan in his own eating philosophy: “Spend more, eat less, but eat better food.”
One manager of a commercial facility that houses 480,000 hens said he’d choose a cage-free brown, organic egg for his own breakfast.
“This is a spiritual decision that we make,” says Kastel. “We used to say grace and be thankful for the food we have. Now food is all around us, and we’ve lost that connection.”
“At the end of the day, we make our decisions based on faith,” says Salatin. “Who do you trust? I put my faith in historical normalcy and a habitat that allows a chicken to fully express her chickenness. If she can’t do that, I assume the disrespect will manifest itself in compromised quality.”
As a mother and a consumer, it’s both my job and my right to inform myself, choose what makes the most sense to me, and vote with my wallet.
How do you know where your grocery store eggs come from?
Read the side of the box: you’ll find the name of the distributor as well as a code for the farm or hen house of origin. Take that information and hit the Web or call the number provided. Ask if you can visit the farm; if they say no, you might want to reconsider buying their eggs. You can also look to third-party consumer watchdogs like the Cornucopia Institute, whose aim is to ensure that organic operations are meeting the letter of the law. Their guide to organic eggs can be found at www.cornucopia.org/organic-egg-scorecard.
But how do they taste?
For some people, it’s all about the performance on the plate. We conducted our own double-blind taste test using conventional, cage-free organic, and pastured eggs. Chef/owners Grant Clifton and Russ Testa of Your Chef’s Table, a D.C.-area catering company dedicated to helping people learn how to cook with local, seasonal ingredients, prepared a breakfast of fried eggs, spinach scrambled eggs, country hash, fresh fruit, and grilled bread for our panel of seven judges. Our judges ranged in age from six to 44; their knowledge of eggs ran from novice to expert. We gathered in the learning kitchen at Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, a non-profit organization that promotes whole-health education. Here’s what our tasters thought.
Pastured, Mount Vernon Farm
42.5 cents per egg
Several people on our panel recognized these right away as “farmer’s market eggs,” describing them as having a “dense,” “tender,” “flavorful” white and a “buttery, rich yolk” that “stood up nicely.” With a bright orange yolk, “creamy mouth-feel,” and “full flavor,” this egg ranked as everyone’s favorite.
Conventional, Glenwood Farms
19 cents per egg
The yolk was deemed “runnier” with “less muscle” than #1, and the “not as fluffy” white tasted “good, not great.” Our 6-year-old judge noted that this one had “a little less flavor,” which was echoed in the tasting notes of five out of the other six panelists. A few on the panel ranked this as their second-favorite.
Cage-Free Organic, Whole Foods Brand
27 cents per egg
This egg was also deemed “flatter” in flavor than #1, with a “loose, bland” white and a “flabbier,” “oozier” yolk, although they said it had decent flavor. In terms of overall appeal, our panel didn’t distinguish much between eggs 2 and 3, evaluating this egg as “average,” and “what they would expect from a grocery store egg.”
What’s in a name?
How to make sense of all the marketing on the outside of an egg carton? Other than the mandatory nutrition fact panel, it’s all up to the company that’s selling the eggs. Here are some commonly used terms:
USDA Organic: A nationwide regulated term; eggs must meet certain standards set by the National Organic Program in regard to animal welfare, feed, and outdoor access. A full explanation can be found through their website: www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop
Non-GMO: Feed contains no genetically modified organisms.
Brown eggs vs. white eggs: Brown eggs come from brown hens; white eggs come from white hens; it’s the way that the hens are raised and what they eat that makes the difference as to what’s inside the shell.
Cage-Free: A USDA-regulated term. Birds are not caged but are housed inside facilities with no outdoor access.
Free-Range: An unregulated term indicating that hens have had access to the outdoors, but there is no specification to the quality, duration, or amount of space they’re afforded.
All-Natural: Usually refers to the feed. No antibiotics, animal byproducts, or other chemicals, but because it might contain GMOs, it’s not necessarily organic.
Vegetarian-Fed: No animal byproducts in the hens’ diet.
Farm Fresh, Country Fresh: Meaningless marketing lingo; eggs are probably from a caged hen.
Soy-free: Also refers to the feed.
Omega-3 enriched: Hens are fed omega-3 supplements, like flax, seaweed, fish oils, or algae. Some pastured hens’ eggs will also be labeled as having high omega-3.
Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, American Humane Certified: Eggs have met the standards of third-party certification groups. Standards vary.
Adrienne Wichard-Edds lives with her family of egg-lovers in Arlington, Virginia. She, however, only eats eggs in quiche and cake.