For starters, no matter what kind of eggs you buy, the color of the shell or the yolk has no bearing on egg quality or nutrition. The shell color is usually determined by the breed of hen – most white chickens with white ear lobes lay white eggs, while red-feathered birds with red ear lobes lay brown eggs.
The color of the yolk is determined by the diet of the hen. Hens eating yellow-orange food, such as yellow cornmeal, produce eggs with a deeper colored yolk than those consuming a diet of lighter colored barley or wheat. Pasture-raised hens have access to a more varied diet and their egg yolks may be darker, reflecting the nutritional diversity of their diet. Some producers add marigold flower petals to the feed to make a richer colored yolk. Artificial colors are not allowed to be added to the feed. (1)
And what about the cholesterol controversy with eggs? The current recommendation is that while eggs do contain cholesterol, for most people the cholesterol they eat has only a small effect on total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol. Research shows that up to an egg a day can be included as a part of your daily intake without negative health effects. (2)
Here’s a rundown of what the labels mean so you can make the best choices when buying eggs for your family:
Cage-free hens are free to move around inside a large building and are offered unlimited access to food and water. The birds are not allowed outdoors and they have their beaks clipped to prevent harming other birds. Conditions vary depending on the producer, but the birds are typically allowed about 1 square foot of space each and perching and nesting structures are provided. These eggs are a budget-friendly choice.
These are the only type of eggs with an official definition set by the USDA. Eggs from hens labeled organic must be fed food that is grown without using most synthetic pesticides or fertilizers and without GMOs. These hens have access to sunlight and the outdoors, but there is no specification for how much time is spent outdoors. (3) Put these eggs in your cart if you place value on avoiding GMOs, pesticides and antibiotics in your food and supporting producers who keep sustainability in mind.
The “humanely-raised” label may include providing hens with outdoor access, shelter in clean and well-ventilated buildings and gentle handling to limit stress. There is no government-regulated definition of humanely-raised, so conditions will vary with different producers. For eggs from a trusted source, look for the “Certified Humane” stamp on the label. This stamp is from Humane Farm Animal Care, an organization that sets standards for the treatment and care of animals. If it’s important to you to support the ethical treatment of animals, these eggs may be worth the additional cost.
When you see this on the label, but don’t see the “Certified Humane” mark with it, it’s an unregulated claim. According to Humane Farm Animal Care, pasture-raised hens spend a minimum of six hours a day outdoors with at least 108 square feet of space per bird. To ensure they have a continuous supply of fresh vegetation, the hens are rotated through different fields for their grazing and foraging.
Pasture-raised birds soak up vitamin D from the sunshine, eat a varied diet of plants and insects and enjoy a less stressful life than hens raised indoors. This method of raising hens is thought to significantly boost the nutritional value of the eggs. Research shows that pasture-raising chickens has beneficial effects on their egg’s cholesterol levels and may increase the amount of vitamin D in their eggs. (4) Pasture-raised eggs can be a smart choice for the health of the hens and a nutritious choice for you and your family
Hens that lay these eggs are fed a diet supplemented with omega-3 rich flax seeds or fish oil. Depending on the producer, the eggs can have from 100 to over 600 mg of omega-3s per egg. Comparatively, a 3-ounce serving of farm-raised salmon provides more than 1,500 mg of omega-3s. (5) Omega-3 fatty acids are essential to blood clotting, artery function and other vital roles in the body. Since we can’t make omega-3s, we have to rely on food sources such as fish, walnuts, flax seeds and leafy vegetables to get them. (6)
Keep in mind that the added omega-3s don’t drastically change the egg’s overall nutrition! Some eggs may not even contain very much DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), the most beneficial type of omega-3s that are in fish and may contain more ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). There is no regulation that says the producer has to say how much of each type of omega-3s are in the eggs, though some do. Read labels carefully. If you’re looking to add more omega-3s, these enriched eggs might be a good option for this essential nutrient.