- Egg cartons are riddled with labels like “Omega-3,” “Farm Fresh,” “Pasture-Raised,” and many more.
- Producers tend to tack as many labels as they can onto cartons, which can be both overwhelming and confusing.
- Some of the phrases give useful information about how the eggs were produced, but others are simply marketing ploys.
The egg section in the grocery store is both a joyful and confusing place. You’re there to purchase eggs, but the selection is vast and the labels on the carton? Seemingly endless …
Phrases like “Omega-3,” “Farm Fresh,” and “No Hormones” line the boxes, purposefully vague. And what’s the difference between “Grade AA” and “Grade A,” or between “Cage-Free” and “Free-Range?”
We rounded up 10 egg labels and figured out what they really mean. Keep scrolling to learn more about why you should – or shouldn’t – pay attention to certain words.
Grade AA vs. Grade A vs. Grade B
Careful not to confuse this with school-related grades, though the letter system is kind of similar. According to the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, eggs are graded on their appearance and quality.
Grade AA is the best, with “thick, firm whites and high, round yolks” and strong shells. Grade A is pretty much the same, but with “reasonably” firm whites instead – these are the ones usually sold in grocery stores.
And finally, there are Grade B eggs, which have “thin whites and wider yolks.” The shells on Grade B eggs aren’t cracked, but they may be a bit stained, making these eggs ideal for baking and other recipes that don’t count on appearance.
Though it sounds appealing, this phrase tells you nothing about the egg production process or even the egg. It’s basically stating the obvious: that the egg is, in fact, a real egg from a real hen. Don’t let it distract you from other important carton lingo; “All-Natural” is pure marketing.
The phrase “cage-free” paints an idyllic picture in one’s mind: hens given freedom beyond the restrictive cages found in many production facilities. And that’s somewhat true: cage-free hens are not raised in the typical caged housing systems, and they are given access to roam the facility. But don’t necessarily confuse cage-free with cruelty-free.
“Free-Range” takes it a step further: in addition to not adhering to the cage system, free-range eggs come from hens that either live in, or are given access to, the outdoors.
Some studies have found that there’s no nutritional difference between eggs from free-range hens and eggs from hens housed in production facilities with cages.
This term is also for marketing purposes only, and doesn’t really convey any information.
Sure, the words “farm” and “fresh” sound appetizing when placed next to each other. But “Farm Fresh” on a carton simply means you’re getting good ol’ fashioned eggs from a hen who lived on a commercial farm. Nothing groundbreaking here.
If eggs are branded as organic, they should also have a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic seal on the carton, which confirms that the farm or facility at which they were produced has been certified organic.
Organic eggs must come from free-range hens. Those hens also must be fed organic feed (mostly grains and forages), and not fed poultry by-products, manure, antibiotics, or any “animal drugs.”
This label – like “Farm Fresh” and “All-Natural” – states the obvious. No egg-laying hens in the U.S. receive hormones or hormone injections, which means phrases like “Hormone-Free” or “No Hormones” could technically be put on every carton in the store.
Omega-3 is a type of fatty acid that has been proven to help with heart and brain health. But according to Canadian nutritionist Leslie Beck, just because your egg carton has the “Omega-3” label doesn’t mean you’re buying eggs with enough of the Omega-3 you need.
Eggs can be fortified with two types of Omega-3 fatty acids called DHA and ALA. Extensive research has been done on the health benefits of DHA (found in fish), with less known about the benefits of ALA (found in flaxseed and walnuts).
Hens that produce the “Omega-3”-branded eggs eat feed that contains flaxseed. Once consumed, some of the ALA in the seeds gets broken down into DHA in their system. One “Omega-3”-labelled egg typically contains 340 milligrams of ALA and just 75 to 100 milligrams of DHA, according to Beck.
The thing is, hens and chickens aren’t vegetarians. They’re omnivores, enjoying bugs and small animals in addition to plants. Many cartons bear the label “Vegetarian-Fed Chickens” or “Vegetarian Diet,” but, if true, this actually may be harming the animals.
Tracy Favre, a farmer and federal organic inspector, told the Washington Post that she cringes in the supermarket when she sees the “Vegetarian Diet” label. When chickens are subjected to an un-supplemented vegetarian diet they can lose out on a protein-based amino acid called methionine. Without it, they can fall ill and even start pecking at each other.
Methionine supplements have been administered to hens on many organic farms, but since the supplements are synthetic, they’re limited due to federal regulations. Farmers and facilities are still experimenting with various options for an effective “Vegetarian Diet.”
If an egg carton is labelled “Pasture-Raised,” it means that the hens spent their lives – or portions of them – on a pasture, or with access to a pasture. This means they have also grazed naturally, without the help of feeds and other facility-administered foods.
However, the government has not yet defined a common standard for producers to meet that allows them to claim their products are “Pasture-Raised,” nor is there a definition of what constitutes a “pasture.” Furthermore, on-farm inspections for the “Pasture-Raised” label are not required. Consumer Reports recommends that consumers don’t “rely on the ‘pasture raised’ labelling claim alone.”