Eggs are an easy food to get in your diet because egg-based foods are everywhere. But your egg selection is no longer all that simple! Go to the store and you’re suddenly faced with a choice that borders on the existential: free-range, free-run, organic, cage-free, brown, and white. What’s the best one? How can you make the choice that’s the most ethical, environmental, and health-conscious?
Don't worry, it's very easy to understand! Here are some answers to the questions you may have when facing down the dreaded egg section.
The most common eggs you’ll encounter are Canada A, B, or C grades, cage-free, free-range, and free-run. In Canada, “graded” eggs are those that meet certain requirements based on appearance and characteristics (yolk size, firmness of the albumen or egg white, free of cracks and dirt, etc.). It says nothing of the conditions in which the hens were raised, so while you can get a good sense of the quality of the eggs, you won’t know anything about the source.
To figure out the ethical and nutritional side of your eggs, you should look for labels like “cage-free”, “free-run”, and “free-range”. Despite all alluding to the fact that the chickens were free to roam, these labels have different distinctions.
Cage-free eggs come from hens that are not kept in small cages known as “battery cages” that confine movement. This label is being stamped on more and more cartons these days, and while this is a really great sign that the industry is moving forward, it still comes with some caveats. The chickens won’t necessarily have access to the outdoors, meaning that “cage-free” hens could still have medications in their food source. Read the label carefully and even search the company before making a commitment.
Cage-free is a label used in conjunction with two other labels: free-run and free-range. “Run” and “range” don’t sound terribly different, but the difference in parlance refers to the amount of space the chickens get in which to roam. Free-run eggs come from hens that move about in large, open-space barns, but don’t necessarily get to go outside; free-range eggsmeans the hens get access to the outdoors and can eat a natural grazing diet of grubs and grasses (weather permitting, of course – there’s no sense in subjecting birds to Canada’s winter!). Either way, by buying these eggs, you’ll know the chickens have more freedom to act like chickens.
The common denominator with these labels is the lack of cages. Battery cages prevent the egg-laying hens from moving about, building nests, bathing themselves in dust, and acting like, well, the animals that they are. This is designed to prevent them from attacking each other, which can happen when chickens are contained in tight spaces. However, the extremely confining spaces of battery cages (which typically measure 170 square centimeters of space, roughly the size of a sheet of paper[i]) can do a lot of damage to the chickens.
The physical restrictions of the cages prevent the chickens from moving, even stopping them from extending their wings. Because they can’t use their muscles, their bodies degrade in the cage, leading to bone deterioration, liver disease, and something called ‘layer fatigue’, where they can no longer physically pass eggs.[ii] It even has a psychological effect, as the chickens can’t find shelter in which to lay their eggs, something that is in their nature to do.[iii] Fewer farms are using battery cages, and while more work needs to be done, it’s a step in a very positive direction.
Cage-free, free-run, and free-range labels all are excellent clues that you’re buying quality eggs, but there isn’t a third-party certification in Canada that checks for these conditions. That’s why certified organic eggs are the most secure choice if you’re concerned with what the hens are fed and how they live. It’s a guarantee that their food is free from antibiotics, and that the farms have passed animal welfare standards.[iv]
You might notice that organic eggs have a deep orange-coloured yolk, and this might seem strange, given that we’re so used to pale yellow yolks. Yolk colours are determined by what the hen eats, and if they are deeper orange, it means they are consuming pigments that are found in their natural diet. Orange yolks have the same amount of protein and fat, but also contain more omega-3s and nutrients.[v] Some even find them more flavourful, and while this could be a trick of the mind, people do swear by them!
Sometimes, you might see a different price for different eggs based on what colour they are. A lot of grocers value brown eggs, and this elevation in price means many think brown eggs are healthier. However, it doesn’t really matter whether your eggs are brown or white! What’s on the outside is determined by the genetics of the hen, and different breeds will lay different colours. There isn’t any difference in taste, consistency, or nutrition between white and brown eggs, as much of what’s inside an egg is determined by the diet of the hen.
The perception that “brown” eggs are healthier comes from the fact that they look more natural, and that some grocers have a history of marking up the price. Don’t be fooled – it’s not the breed of chicken that matters, but how it’s raised!
At Goodness Me! all our eggs are cage-free, and free range or free run! This means our chickens are never crammed, jammed, or caged, but have room to roam. Studies show that happier, healthier hens lay eggs with more nutrition than those in a cage!