Standing in front of the egg section at the grocery store can be overwhelming. With stickers and labels touting everything from all-natural eggs to chickens who enjoyed vegetarian diets, it's hard to know what exactly is the best choice. We did some decoding and found out the truth behind these sometimes tricky labels.
Just like all other food products, all-natural has no legal definition for eggs. Which means that any (and almost all) companies can slap that label on their cartons as a buzzword with little to no challenge.
Hormone-Free or Antibiotic-Free
Both of these labels are quite misleading. It's currently illegal in the US to give hormones to poultry, so technically every egg company produces "hormone-free" eggs. The antibiotic-free label is in the same boat. While chickens raised for their meat are often fed antibiotics, hens who produce eggs are almost never given them, making this label a moot point.
While you might picture chickens wandering around an idyllic farm, the legal definition of cage-free is quite far from it. Cage-free chickens are usually confined to live in massive industrial barns that house thousands of birds at a time with no outdoor access. This allows the chickens to walk around freely, but that is often a hard task due to the large amount of animals kept in such a small space.
This USDA regulated label has several requirements before a farm and its eggs can be officially deemed "organic." Organic eggs must be produced by chickens that only eat organic feed, have never received antibiotics or hormones, and are considered free-range (see below). While meeting these government-mandated standards will usually guarantee higher quality eggs, not all organic farms are created equally. To make sure your egg provider is meeting all of your standards as a consumer, check out The Cornucopia Institute's organic egg scorecard to see rankings.
Sometimes also labeled as "free-roaming," this label is similar to "cage-free" (see above), but the main difference is that free-range chickens require access to the outdoors. There is no legal definition for free-range when it comes to egg production, so companies can for the most part interpret this label however they desire. For most, this means providing chickens with minimal screened-in areas of concrete or dirt, which are often so small the majority of chickens never get a chance to go "outside." If you're concerned about the animal welfare aspect of your egg consumption, look for Humane Farm Animal Care's Certified Humane Free-Range label. This non-profit's program ensures that their free-range egg producers provide chickens with amenities like roosts, 1.5 square feet of space per bird, and access to fresh water.
Since the most common sources of omegas are seafood and seeds, you may be curious how they manage to get that into farmed eggs. The trick is adding a little flaxseed, which is rich in omega-3, to the chicken feed. One study found that eggs with the label had five times more omega-3 than conventionally produced eggs, making them a good source of fatty acids.
In the same vein as "all-natural," the "farm fresh" label simply has no legal definition, meaning it can be widely used on egg products with no repercussions.
With no legal definition in the US for "pasture-raised" eggs, it's yet another label that has the potential to be abused by companies. The only "pasture-raised" eggs that are held up to standards are those with Humane Farm Animal Care's Certified Humane Pasture-Raised label, which requires egg producers to keep hens outdoors year-round (weather permitting), rotate the fields/areas where they live, and provide shelter where the chickens can roost without fear of predators.
The label of "vegetarian diet" or "vegetarian fed" is a confusing one. While it may sound ideal for the chickens to be fed a plant-based diet, chickens are naturally omnivorous. They usually find protein in the wild by pecking for worms or consuming bugs, but in a factory farm setting their vegetarian diets are almost always going to consist solely of fortified corn.
This story originally appeared on Cookinglight.com.