Free-range, cage-free, organic pasture-raised humane, non-GMO, no antibiotics — what?
We just want to eat some eggs.
This language, dubbed supermarket pastoral by Michael Pollan, is everywhere today, and perhaps no more obviously than on cartons of eggs.
At the end of 2020, 28% of all hens were in cage-free production, up from 4% in 2010 [*].
That’s good news, but the more labels and money in a space, the more ways producers will find to confuse and trick consumers into buying products that are lower quality than they are. This makes it all the more important to know your farmer and trust their practices.
Two labels have been popularized recently in the egg world: free-range and pasture-raised, and there are some nuanced differences between the two.
Let’s take a broad look at these labels and then dig into the specific differences between free-range and pasture-raised.
Popular egg labels explained
Caged or conventional
Caged or conventional eggs make up around 70% of the eggs Americans eat and are the worst abusers of nutrition and health in the egg industry.
These hens live in small cages that offer 67 square inches of cage space — less space than a single sheet of letter-sized paper [*]. Apart from that, these chickens are also subject to the most abuse, inorganic diets of corn and soy feed, and other nutritional red flags.
If eggs are unlabeled and cheap, they are almost certainly caged or conventional eggs.
Cage-free is a term regulated by the USDA, but it doesn’t speak to any size, space, or feed requirements. So while definitely a step up from caged eggs, these birds can still be housed by the thousands in small enclosures that aren’t technically caged and fed low-quality corn and soy feed.
Cage-free is a label best used in tandem with other certifications, such as the Certified Humane label. This means the hens must have at least “1.5 square feet per hen, litter for dust bathing, perches for the birds, and ammonia levels at a maximum of 10ppm, which means the scent is imperceptible”.
Free-range is another term with official USDA regulation and means the hens had continuous access to some sort of pasture or roaming area for their entire lives. This isn’t always as rosy as it sounds, though.
Many producers abuse this term by creating small doors to tiny “pastures” that are essentially patches of dirt. These farms’ hens seldom use them, negating the real benefits of raising hens outside, including eating a diverse omnivorous diet and having the freedom to engage with natural instincts.
To receive the Certified Humane symbol alongside free-range, each bird must have on average 2 feet of outdoor space per bird. That may not sound like a lot, but that figure is used in tandem with barns and coops, and most birds don’t all roam outside together.
So if you have 200 birds, 400 square feet of well-kept pasture, and 50 birds roaming at any particular moment, it can be a spacious and healthy environment — but as mentioned, that is not guaranteed by the label.
Pasture-raised is the latest label star in the supermarket pastoral scene and is viewed as the apex of egg purity outside of locally produced and hobbyist eggs. It is an attempt to create a natural environment for chickens and encourages a mixed diet of insects and organic feed.
While unregulated, this label generally means hens have considerable pasture space, and when paired with Certified Humane certifications, the “Pasture Raised” requirement is 1000 birds per 2.5 acres (108 sq. ft. per bird) and the fields must be rotated [*].
Your next-best choice is just pasture-raised without the CH label, but this may include companies with more limited pastures.
Key differences between pasture-raised and free-range
Free-range is a USDA term meaning continuous access to pasture and can qualify for a Certified Humane certification with 2 square feet of outdoor space per hen, whereas pasture-raised is an unofficial term that generally means significant square feet per hen and requires a minimum of 108 sq. ft. for the Certified Humane Certification.
1. Pasture-raised can be nutritionally superior
While not a guarantee and there are free-range + certified humane producers who do a fantastic job, pasture-raised with the Certified Humane label is a pretty good bet that you’ll be getting hens who had a good mix of organic feed and natural food like bugs.
The more natural the food, the better the nutritional profile of the resulting eggs, including less saturated fats, higher levels of vitamin D and antioxidants, and better ratios of Omega-6 to Omega-3 proteins [*].
2. Free-range is usually cheaper than pasture-raised
All that space makes it much more difficult to produce pasture-raised hens at scale. Scaling is about efficiency, and when producers adhere to these standards the prices reflect that.
3. Free-range is more often abused than pasture-raised
The definition of free-range can be left up to interpretation, and some producers take advantage of the idea of “continuous” and “open access”.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t good free-range egg companies out there (or bad pasture-raised!), but it does mean that the label leaves enough up to interpretation that without other certifications, you should be wary.
Other common egg labels
Eggs with USDA’s National Organic Program label are from uncaged or cage-free hens that have the “freedom to roam in their houses” and “access to the outdoors”. They are fed organic diets without conventional pesticides or fertilizers. While always good to see, treat this with similar caution to cage-free and free-range.
As we’ve talked about above, this nonprofit certification is in many ways the complementary standard to well-produced eggs. In order to be certified producers must prove a variety of practices including access to wholesome and nutritious feed, appropriate environmental design, caring and responsible planning and management, skilled, knowledgeable, and conscientious animal care, and considerate handling, transport, and slaughter.
You can find the complete list of standards for egg-laying hens here.
Omega-3 addition labels don’t mean much, and they are mainly a marketing ploy that usually means they just added a bit of flaxseed to the chicken feed for the express purpose of this label.
Eggs are given grades (AA, A, or B) based on interior quality factors like defects and freshness, and exterior factors reflecting shell attributes [*].
Grade A eggs have thick whites (AA are even thicker), making them great for frying. Grade B are a bit thinner and better for omelets and cake mixes.
This term simply means that nothing was added to the egg. All eggs meet this criterion, making this label essentially pointless.
Where to get the best eggs
There are three good options. Two that you can find in most grocery stores, the other requires a bit more research.
1. Local farms and hobbyists
You can’t beat local farms and chicken owners raising chickens naturally on the land. Check and see if any of your local farms have a program to get involved in. If that doesn’t work, browse social media groups and listings to see if anyone is selling local eggs.
2. Pasture-raised + certified humane
Vital Farms is one of the only egg producers that is both pasture-raised and Certified Humane. This makes it your best general supermarket choice outside of local farm offerings.
3. Just pasture-raised
Pasture-raised or bust, as Mark Sisson likes to say. If you can’t get one with the certification, someone with pasture-raised still typically means they pay attention to the diet and living conditions of their chickens.
If you’re unsure, take a look at their website and see if they show actual pictures of their farm and chickens. The more transparency the better.
The extra few bucks per dozen are worth it
When you add up the nutritional benefits, money going to sustainable companies who care about health (or even better the local economy), and the delicious taste of bright, healthy yolks, paying an extra few dollars for your eggs is worth the budgetary sacrifice.
The same goes for meat and other dairy products. You should care about what you eat, eats. Antibiotics, hormones, and other poor dietary upbringings in animals we eat have an impact we’re only just beginning to understand.
So if you’re ready to experience the taste and nutritional benefits of 100% grass-fed and grass-finished beef, raised on the best grass in the world, check U.S. Wellness Meats out.
Get the best 100% grass-fed and grass-finished meat delivered right to your door.
Nathan Phelps owns and writes for Crafted Copy, a boutique copywriting shop that finds the perfect words for interesting products. He is also an ethical foodie, outdoors-aficionado, and hails from Nashville, TN. He splits his time between helping sustainable businesses find new customers and managing his ever-increasing list of hobbies, which include playing guitar, baking bread, and creating board games.