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By Kelly Rondeau

Find yourself standing frozen in the chilly refrigerator-section of the grocery store, trying to decide which eggs to buy? There are so many choices, so little time to read all of the cartons, it’s an overwhelming buying experience. But here’s the 411 on how to snag the healthiest, most nutritious, and chicken-friendly eggs on your next trip to the market.

First, there are many, many kinds of eggs out there, so know what you’re buying beforehand. Here’s what all the labels mean:

Organic
Organic eggs are considered to be healthier, because they are produced by organically raised chickens who are not given any growth hormones or antibiotics. But organic does not ensure that the chickens are given much time in the pasture, or given adequate amounts of sunlight or freedom. De-beaking, a procedure some farmers employ to keep chickens from pecking each other, still occurs, based on the size of the farm . The larger the farm is, the more likelihood that de-beaking takes place, so look for smaller, more local sources for eggs to reduce the chance you’re supporting this controversial practice. And remember, if a carton label says, “organic” it doesn’t automatically mean that the hens are treated ethically and humanely.

Certified Organic
To be verifiably organic and certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the chickens must be raised on organic grain grown without pesticides. The use of antibiotics and cages are not allowed. The term “all-natural” does not equate to “organic,” but may be used by producers to imply organic without getting the thumb’s up from the USDA’s National Organic Program. Having a true organic USDA classification is an extremely rigid definition: It requires that all-organic vegetarian diet. However, de-beaking and forced molting by starvation (to produce more eggs) are still allowed. Certified organic standards are higher than most, but just how much access to the outdoors is provided on large chicken farms is hugely debated.

Free-Range
This is a better, more humane way to raise chickens, but don’t be fooled by the label. Many “free-range” chicks may have access to the outdoors, but can still live in a crowded pen or a crowded barn with cement flooring, and only have limited access to the outside each day. A chicken in a barn with a window can still be qualified as “free-range.” Check your egg’s source, what farm did it come from? What are their “free-range” conditions? Not sure? Don’t buy the carton.

Pastured or Pasture-Raised
This is best. Chickens get to roam about in a pasture, and if it’s an organic pasture, that’s even better! Living in organic pastures, chickens can feed on organic grass, insects, worms, micro-orthopods and grubs, getting mega nutrition that passes down to the egg and onto the consumer.

A 2007 egg test by Mother Earth News found that eggs from pastured hens were more nutritious than standardly raised grocery-store eggs. The results found that eggs from hens raised on pasture contained less cholesterol and saturated fat, more vitamin A, twice as much omega-3 fatty acids and three times more vitamin E than commerical eggs.

Certified Organic and Pastured
Certified organic and pastured eggs are absolutely the best type of eggs to buy. Jerry Cunningham, owner of Coyote Creek Farm raises organic, pastured-hen eggs and says, “One of our eggs is packed-full of nutrients; you would have to eat five store-bought eggs to get as much of the Omega-3 that’s in just one of ours.” Cunningham believes in the most humane form of chicken-raising, which includes letting his hens roam free on organic grass, and consuming freshly ground organic feed grains daily. His chickens, “Get to herd in plenty of sunlight, and they have the ability to take dust baths (which chickens need to do to stay clean naturally), and to breathe fresh air.” Also, when chickens are pastured and free to roam, they can socialize in uncrowded conditions. All of these things he says, “Provide the best kind of eggs that have the most nutrients.” He adds, “Many of the organic-egg labels don’t really mean anything; the chickens can still be living in horrible conditions.”

In addition, one can occur without the other; free-range eggs don’t have to be organic and vice versa. So read your labels carefully.

Certified Humane
Humane Farm Animal Care operates a certification program that specifies that laying hens are uncaged, with access to perches, nest boxes, and dust-bathing areas. Their program also sets stocking density maximums, but outdoor access is not required. Under this certification, de-beaking is still allowed, but starvation to induce molting is not allowed.

Omega 3
All eggs contain small amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids, which are highly nutritional and beneficial to the consumer. Omega-3 levels in eggs can be increased by adding fish oil, flax seed or alfalfa meal to a bird’s diet. Also, by simply allowing birds to forage on lawn or pasture, the hens will have an increased supply of Omega-3 in their eggs.

To ensure that you’re truly getting the best eggs out there, do a little research. Cunningham suggests visiting the Eat Wild website. Enter in your zip code to locate organic eggs and/or pastured hen farms near you. Local Harvest offers the same service, with a farm locater on its website.

As groceries go, Whole Foods Market is the largest distributor of organic and pastured eggs, with Jeremiah Cunningham’s Coyote Creek Farms’ organic eggs from pastured hens being one available label.
More Hard Boiled Facts on Eggs

There’s not a nutritional difference between brown or white eggs, it just means that if they’re brown in color, then a brown-feathered or red-lobed chicken produced the eggs. White-lobed hens lay white eggs and some breeds, like the Ameraucana and Araucana breeds are the rainbow laying hens of the world, with their eggs ranging in colors from khaki green to sky blue, to pink-tinted and even lavender-tinted.

When seeking nutrition via color, look at the yolk of the egg. The more yellow the yolk, the more carotene or Vitamin A has been eaten by the hen, so more nutrition is coming to you. Rich yellow yolks are definitely what you need to be seeking.

On average, three hens can lay two eggs each day, under normal and healthy conditions. That means it takes eighteen hens laying eggs, to get one dozen eggs every day.

Bantam eggs are smaller in size, but there’s no nutritional difference between a Bantam egg and a regular egg.

So what’s the big problem with mass-produced eggs? Depending on who you consult, there is either much or little to worry about. Those advocating for more humane treatment of laying hens maintain that hens raised in many large commercial operations are over-stressed, housed too closely together (two to three in a cage) and painfully de-beaked so they don’t peck or cannibalize their flock mates (though pecking occurs in uncaged flocks also). The stress of close quarters, lack of sunlight and inadequate room to roam and roost results in the mistreatment of chickens and eggs that are nutritionally inferior, according to those who promote cage-free and pastured flocks.

But egg farmer groups, such as the United Egg Producers in Atlanta, Ga., say the problems are exaggerated. Cage-free hens are no more healthier than caged hens, which are kept in sanitized housing with conveyor belts to remove waste; further, beak-trimming can help hens by reducing the damage from pecking, according to the UEP, which has produced a “myths and facts” page to address consumers’ concerns. The UEP also points out that most consumers are still buying the conventionally produced eggs that their members sell.

The debate is sure to rage on, and that makes this a good time to “know your eggs.”

It goes almost without saying that eggs are an excellent source of protein; a typical large egg contains over six grams of protein. And they’re still one of the least-expensive forms of high-quality protein available; cheaper than any meat on the market. In addition, eggs are an excellent source of choline, a chemical that has been found to play an important neurological role in the brain’s development and in memory functions. With 125 mg of choline, one egg provides 22% of an adult’s daily requirement.

According to the American Egg Board, “the incredible edible egg” offers 13 essential nutrients, including folate (important for pregnant women), iron and zinc in addition to choline.

Scrambled, boiled or however you like them, eggs have much to offer, perhaps especially when bought in their most healthy form.

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