An Egg is an Egg is an Egg …

July 11, 2019

By Anna Varriano

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An egg is an egg is an egg.

That was the short answer I received when I emailed a large commercial egg producer some time ago to ask why their eggs looked so much different than eggs from pastured hens. The pastured eggs have dark orange coloured yolks and firmer whites compared with commercial eggs. I knew the answer, but I wanted to hear what the egg producer’s take on it was.

Here’s the photo I emailed them along with my question:

The egg on the left is an egg from the commercial producer. The egg on the right is an egg from a pastured hen from a local farm. Can you notice a difference?

The full answer I received was as follows:

An egg is an egg is an egg. In the east, we feed our chickens more corn. In the west, we feed them more wheat. That impacts the colour of the yolk a little bit, but all eggs basically have the same nutritional value regardless of what the hens eat.

I emailed back asking, why then, if their position is that what a hen is fed has no impact on the nutritional value of an egg, do  they market an ‘omega-3 egg’ that comes from hens that are fed flax seeds AND charge a premium for those eggs? That was the end of the email exchange. I never heard back from them. Busted!

A few years ago, CBC Marketplace aired a report called “Egg Crackdown”, where they investigated the marketing of grocery store eggs and visited egg producers to figure out what the labels on eggs mean. This episode was mentioned in an article I recently read about eggs, so I thought I’d watch it again. You can watch the episode in its entirety by clicking here, but I’ve summarized some of the key points for you below to save you some time.

CBC Marketplace had a panel of ‘tasters’ who were fed four different types of eggs:

  1. Conventional eggs from battery-caged hens
  2. Free-run eggs
  3. Organic free-range eggs
  4. Pastured eggs

Testers found that the cooked pastured eggs had a deeper coloured yolk and a stronger aroma, as well as a more robust flavour compared with the other eggs, although some testers preferred what was described as the ‘bland’ flavour of the conventional eggs from battery-caged birds.

Of course, taste is only one factor that we might consider when buying eggs. Others are how the chickens are raised, the cost of the eggs, and nutritional value. Let’s take a look at these factors.

How the Chickens are Raised

There are so many descriptions for eggs now: battery-caged, organic, free-run, cage-free, free-range, nest laid, pastured … what’s the difference? Here’s my understanding.

Battery-caged eggs

These are the cheapest and most popular eggs; in fact, 90% of consumers buy these eggs. These eggs come from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO). A CAFO can have 20,000 hens per farm with typically 6 hens per cage. Animal welfare groups say battery cages are so cramped that the hens can’t walk, spread their wings or engage in other natural behaviours. Each hen has less floor space than the size of a sheet of notebook paper. The EU banned this type of egg farm in 1999 and other countries have followed suit. Canada has until 2036 to get rid of them.

Nest laid eggs

These eggs come from chickens who live in ‘enriched’ cages. Their living conditions are similar to battery-caged hens, although they have slightly bigger cages, the floors include scratching pads, and there are ‘privacy’ areas for the hens to lay their eggs in (behind the red flaps in the photo above).

Free-run/Cage-free eggs

These eggs come from hens that are kept in a barn and are not caged; however, living conditions are still crowded.

Free-range eggs

These eggs come from hens that live in similar conditions to free-run or cage-free hens. The difference is that the hens have access to the outdoors; however, pictures of these operations shown on the Marketplace documentary revealed a “conspicuous absence of chickens in their outdoor areas.” So … maybe not TRUE free-range conditions …

Organic TRUE free-range/pastured eggs

These hens get unlimited access to large outdoor runs during the day, and are kept in spacious barns overnight. No cages, no antibiotics. While organic feed is provided, weather permitting, the hens spend most of their time foraging outdoors for their natural diet which includes seeds, plants, insects, and worms. Note that an organic label is the only way to ensure chickens aren’t fed antibiotics for growth purposes.

Cost

Conventional eggs from battery-caged hens can be priced as low as $1.99/dozen, while organic pastured eggs can be priced as high as $7.99/dozen.

Nutritional Value

Contrary to what I was told through the limited email exchange I had with a large commercial egg producer, an egg is not an egg is not an egg! There is a difference in the nutritional value of an egg depending on how the hens are raised/fed.

CBC Marketplace had lab testing done on the four types of eggs they included in their report and it revealed a significant nutritional difference. The nutritional winner? The organic pastured eggs, which compared with the other eggs had:

  • 3 to 5 times more vitamin E
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • significantly higher amounts of other nutrients, including vitamins A and D

This doesn’t mean that conventional battery-caged eggs offer no nutritional value, but it does mean that organic pastured eggs offer superior nutrition – and if you care about how the hens are raised, then eggs from pastured hens win again.

The bottom line of the Marketplace investigation? For the best quality eggs, from the most humanely-raised hens, look for eggs labelled as organic and pastured. You can find these eggs at health food stores, grocery stores with organic food sections, at Farmers Markets, or maybe you’re lucky enough to know someone who has pastured hens. I’ve always wanted to have some backyard chickens … one day!

Aside from the info from the Marketplace documentary, here are a few other considerations when it comes to eggs:

  • Pastured eggs are less likely to be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria such as Salmonella
  • Do not fear the cholesterol contained in egg yolks! We need it! It is heart-healthy and brain-healthy. Egg yolks also contain many nutrients that reduce inflammation and boost our overall health.
  • Cooking can reduce certain nutrients, so eat your cooked eggs with runny yolks (eg soft poached, soft sunny-side up, over-easy) to get the most nutritional benefit.
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