Janice Cole, the author of Chicken and Egg: A Memoir of Suburban Homesteading with 125 Recipes, knows how delicious a really fresh egg tastes. She keeps three chickens she calls “the girls” in the backyard of her suburban Minneapolis home. “Jasmine, a white Silkie, lays small, beige-colored eggs; Keiko a black and white Ameraucana and Silver Wyandotte cross, green eggs; and Peanut, a brown feathery Cochin mix, brown eggs,” relates Cole.
Cole has learned a lot about the natural lives of chickens. They need 14 hours of sunlight to produce eggs and lay about one per day. Chickens must be protected from predators, locked up at night in their coop for optimal well-being and let out in the morning to roam. Here are some tips for buying the freshest, most delicious and humanely raised chicken eggs.
How to Read an Egg Carton
Deciphering the language on an egg carton is a first step. Diet affects flavor. “Eggs from pasture-raised chickens allowed to roam—eating grass, worms and bugs in the backyard or a pasture will look and taste better than eggs from chickens limited to an inside space eating chicken feed,” says Cole. “Pasture-raised eggs will have a fresh herbaceous, or grassy, flavor with an ‘egg-ier’ essence.”
“Look for the terms organic, free range or ideally, pastured or pasture-raised,” advises Adele Douglass, in Herndon, Virginia, executive director of Humane Farm Animal Care (CertifiedHumane.org).
“USDA Organic” is a U.S. Department of Agriculture label confirming that the food the chicken ate was certified organic. “Non-GMO” indicates a diet free of genetically modified ingredients. “Free-range”, another USDA label, means the chicken had continuing access to the outdoors. “Pasture-raised” assures that the chicken roamed outdoors daily, eating what they wanted; the ideal scenario.
“Cage-free” is a USDA-regulated designation ensuring that the chickens were allowed to roam freely about within their building to get food and water. “Natural” has no real meaning says Douglass; the term invokes no USDA regulation and nothing about actual farming practices. “Certified Humane” or “Animal Welfare Approved” means that each free-range hen has at least two square feet of outdoor space; it’s the most desirable designation, says Douglass.
When farmers want to raise egg-laying chickens, they need to provide physical conditions similar to those Cole affords, but on a larger and more efficient scale, usually without the love. In regions where 14 hours of daylight are not a given, farmers use artificial lighting. When snow is too deep for the birds to venture out and it’s too cold for bug life, farmers supply indoor coops and feed. How well and humanely they do this is up to consumers to find out.
Eating one egg a day, or moderate consumption, will not raise cholesterol levels in healthy adults, concludes a 2012 review in the journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. While egg yolks contain cholesterol, they also possess nutrients that help lower the risk for heart disease, including protein, vitamins B12 and D, riboflavin and folate, according to the Harvard School of Public Health, in Boston. A study by Kansas State University researchers published in the 2001 Journal of Nutrition also found that phosphatidylcholine, another substance in eggs, can decrease the amount of cholesterol the body absorbs from them.
Plus, eggs are great sources of micronutrients and antioxidants, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered and licensed dietitian and wellness manager for Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, in Ohio. “I’ve always been a huge proponent for eggs. As lean sources of protein, they help us stay full, are easy to prepare and can be part of a healthy eating regime because they’re packed with free-radical- and inflammation-fighting antioxidants.” Kirkpatrick adds, “Eggs also help protect eyes. Their nutrient-rich yolks, like leafy green vegetables, are high in lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoids studies have repeatedly shown help protect against macular degeneration.”
Ideally, all chickens would be treated like Cole’s “girls.” For now, the best most of us can do is choose “Pasture-Raised,” “Organic” and “Certified Humane”. Getting to know more about the farmers that produce our eggs is even better.
Judith Fertig writes food health articles and cookbooks from Overland Park, KS (JudithFertig.com).