How healthy are the eggs you’re eating?

With so many options available, it’s not a bad idea to find out a little bit more about where your food is coming from. Here’s the lowdown on classic, free-run, free-range, organic and even vegetarian eggs

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eggs

So many eggs to choose from

No, it's not just you; food shopping has become more complicated. Doing the weekly groceries is not as simple as it once was. Sure, we enjoy more convenience than ever before, but we're also spoiled for choice - especially where eggs are concerned. There's the conventional or what the egg industry has dubbed the "classic" egg, and then there are free-run, free-range, omega, organic and the holy grail of eggs, pastured, which are only available at the farmers' gate or market.

We're lucky, right? We have so many choices. But with this access to so much choice comes responsibility: and this is where it can get complicated. Today, the products we put into our shopping carts can have a far-reaching impact on farm animals, workers and the environment.

If you want to make an educated choice, here are some facts to digest before your next trip to the grocery store.

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egg hen house

Conventional, battery or "classic" eggs

These are the most common, most readily available and cheapest eggs on the market. They are laid by caged or battery hens who are treated with antibiotics and given feed that may contain pesticides. They have no access to the outdoors, never leave their cages and are kept awake 14 hours a day. At the end of their laying day, which is anywhere from 12 to 18 months, the industry considers these hens to be 'spent.' At this point, they are either processed into soup or products such as chicken hot dog or deli meats or simply destroyed and composted. The UK has banned this sort of egg production and there is a growing movement afoot in North America to follow suit. Battery hen eggs tend to be flavourless and pale.

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eggs

Free-run or cage-free

Here's an easy way to remember the difference between free-run and free-range. Free-run hens have the run of the barn while free-range are free to wander on the range - sort of. Well, in theory, anyway. Free-run hens have only a somewhat more natural existence than caged hens. They are still packed in very tightly together - but in open-concept barns. The hens wander around on the floor, lay eggs in nesting boxes if they are provided and eat a conventional ration. This is only marginally better for the hens - at least their feet aren't on wire all the time - but the eggs from these hens taste no better than eggs from battery hens.

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free-range hens

Free-range

Free-range hens are very similar to free-run or cage-free, but have access to the outdoors through a small trap door. But here's the kicker: the doors are often tiny, only open for an hour a day - if at all - and well, 50,000 hens would need quite a bit longer than that to get through a door the size of a doggy flap! And yes, commercial barns often house from 20,000 to 50,000 birds.

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organic hens

Organic eggs

Short of visiting the farmers' market or getting your own backyard hens, organic eggs are probably your best option. Why? Because in Canada, 'certified organic' doesn't just refer to the diet hens are fed, but to their living conditions and welfare as well. And if something is certified organic, then you can rest assured that there is a third party inspector checking in. Not so, with free-run and free-range hens. A hen who lays organic eggs is required to enjoy some outdoor time, nesting boxes, perches and dust baths. She is also fed an organic diet. These might be the most costly eggs in the grocery store, but well worth it in terms of flavour, nutrition and animal welfare.

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eggs

Other options to consider:

Omega-3
Any hen can lay omega-enhanced eggs - battery, free-run, organic - as long as her feed is bulked up with flaxseed or fish oils. The more flax she eats, the higher the omega 3 fatty acids in her yolk. Omega is also available in green leafy things, so a pastured bird will get lots of omega - more than the flax-fed kind - from nibbling on grass. Check the labelling for the hen's living conditions as well as its diet.

Soy-free
No, eggs are not injected with soy, but whatever the hen eats, so do you. If you suffer from soy sensitivity, eggs from soy-fed hens may affect you. These are not too common, but can be found.

Vegetarian Eggs
Yes, that's right. In Canada we're pretty safe from the horrible practice of feeding animals the ground-up waste from slaughter houses - but not entirely. That's why some folks are concerned with buying 'vegetarian eggs' or, in other words, eggs from hens who ate 'no animal by-products' or are '100% grain fed'.

Pastured
The Egg Board does not allow farmers with small, pastured flocks to sell their eggs anywhere but at the farmers' gate or farm store. But look into joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) that sells eggs from pastured hens. You will never go back - promise. The yolks are deep, rich orange. The flavour is meaty, the yolks run thick like molasses and the whites stand at attention in the pan, and forget about that sulphur smell most of us have come to expect from egg whites. These eggs are also tops, nutritionally. A report from Mother Earth News states that most, but not necessarily all, pastured eggs contain one third (1/3) less cholesterol, 25 percent less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, two times more omega-3 fatty acids, three times more vitamin E and seven times more beta carotene.

Liquid Eggs
According to Diana McComb, Director of the Ontario Egg Farmers, if an eggshell is less than perfect - blemished or cracked - it is diverted to liquid egg processing, where it is broken, whisked and pasteurised.

Typically, the cheaper the egg, the less nutritious it is. And now, we are being asked to consider the unseen price tag-the one paid by the hens and the environment.

So what can you do?

• Spend as much as you can on the best food - in this case, eggs - that you can find.
• Get backyard hens.
• Visit a farmers' market near you.
• Go for a country drive and stop at a farmers' gate for eggs.
• Join a CSA.

When doing your own research, remember that Canada and the U.S. have very different rules and regulations around egg terms and practices - with Canada is doing a better job. Now that's something to cluck about!

Oh, and no, there is no difference in taste or nutrition between a white and brown egg. The colour of the egg depends on the breed of hen.

 

Related:
5 reasons to eat more eggs
Our best healthy egg recipes
The facts about omega-3s