Sea Wave/ShutterstockIt seems like an egg is an egg. They don’t need pesticides, no egg-laying chickens get hormones, and there are never any ingredients added. So why are some more expensive, and are they worth the price?
Some of the priciest eggs you’ll see in the supermarket are cage-free and pasture-raised. They sound similar, but neither means the chickens are necessarily roaming free on the farm. Most conventional eggs come from chickens that live in indoor cages. The cages are stacked, and each one fits four to twelve birds, according to NPR, so they’re the cheapest way for a farmer to produce a lot of eggs.
If you’re buying cage-free, the chickens that laid the eggs weren’t confined to the 67 square inches or so. But that doesn’t mean they have prime space to stretch their wings. Even cage-free birds could be indoors, and they have an average of just one square foot to themselves. Find out what other misleading food label tricks you keep falling for.
“Cage-free just means they can roam in an open area, whereas with pasture-raised, they’re actually outside,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Caroline Passerrello, MS, RDN, LDN, spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Those pasture-raised chickens spend most of their time outside, where they can eat a natural diet of worms, grass, and bugs with their corn feed.
Still, the conditions for cage-free or pasture-raised chickens can vary. “These terms are defined by the government, but because they aren’t incredibly specific, they actually vary state to state and even company to company,” says Sara Haas RDN, LDN, a Chicago-based consultant chef and dietitian. So some pasture-raised birds might be on big farms with bushes and trees, while others could be on a small field without much space. Regardless, more space for each bird means it’s more expensive for the farmers, so cage-free and pasture-raised eggs have higher price tags. (On a similar note, find out if grass-fed beef is worth the buy.)
Organic, meanwhile, has stricter requirements. The chickens can only eat organic feed, must be cage-free with access to the outdoors, and can’t be given antibiotics. Like other cage-free eggs, raising organic chickens costs more to produce, so you’ll pay more at checkout. But be extra careful if you decide to buy—shells of organic eggs tend to be thinner and more likely to crack, says Passerrello.
If ethics is your biggest concern, pasture-raised is your best bet. But nutritionally speaking, there isn’t a huge difference between conventional eggs and organic. Some claim that when chickens produce healthier eggs when they can eat their natural diets, but the studies aren’t convincing, says Passerrello. “It’s unlikely to have significant effects,” she says. “They’re pretty nutritionally comparable.”
One expense that could be worth the price though? Eggs that say they have more omega-3 fatty acids. “To get omega-3s into eggs, farmers typically add flax seed to the feed,” says Haas. If you’re showing signs your body needs more healthy fats but aren’t crazy about fish oil or salmon, eggs rich in omega-3s could be worth the splurge, says Passerrello.
Pasteurized eggs could also be worthwhile, depending on how you use them. Eggs carry risk for salmonella, but the heating process of pasteurizing them kills the bacteria on the shell without cooking the egg. Salmonella isn’t a concern if you’re cooking the eggs, but pasteurized ones are a safe choice if you’ll be eating raw cookie dough or making eggnog, says Passerrello.
Now that you’re well-versed on American eggs, find out the real reason Europeans don’t refrigerate their eggs.