The Truth About Free Range, Organic, Cage Free Eggs Nutrition – Which Ones Should You Buy And Are They Safe Raw?
I love eggs. Scrambled, hard-boiled, over easy, deviled (check out Richard Nikoley’s deviled egg recipe)…it doesn’t matter. I’ll eat eggs pretty much any way you want to give them to me. Amongst the fitness crowd, they’re pretty much a staple because they are such cheap, delicious nutrition.So today, let’s look at this little package of protein.
Understanding Egg Marketing Labels
“Free Range,” “Cage Free,” “Organic”…what does it all mean? Marketing labels are perhaps the most confusing part of this whole “eating healthy” game. So what do the various terms you see on the packages mean?
- Conventional (i.e., no special label) – Typically less than half a square foot of space per hen, giving not even enough room to spread their wings.
- Cage Free – As it says, the hens are able to move about inside a barn without being confined to cages. A better life, but not optimal as parts of beaks are often burned to prevent pecking at themselves and others (a sign of distress, by the way).
- Free Range – Implies chickens on lush green pastures. Actually is not a regulated term for eggs so this can be used by absolutely anyone. Really all that’s needed is a door to the outside that gives the chickens “access” to an outdoor area, whether they actually use it or not. This is a meaningless term.
- Organic – This means the hens were fed organic feed, whatever that feed consists of. I think it also means no animal by-products in the feed.
- Vegetarian – The hen is fed a vegetarian feed. I only mention this to point out that chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians, and will naturally eat bugs, grubs, etc. This term is used to imply “healthier” in our anti-meat culture.
As you can see, few of the terms on the egg carton actually mean a whole lot. Other than “organic” and “vegetarian,” it’s pretty useless. But there’s one more term that actually means what you want it to mean. “Pastured” means the chickens were raised on pasture, with access to the sun, grass, bugs, and possibly supplemented with grains and other feed.
So Which Eggs Are The Healthiest?
The USDA will tell you that all eggs are created equal, just as all vegetables, whether organic or not, are equal. Somehow the output from a chicken doesn’t depend on the inputs in the USDA’s world, which is frankly a ridiculous assumption. It’s like a chicken is a little computer program that always puts out the perfect solution, regardless of how much garbage you fed into the program. Too bad it’s not reality.
I was passed two articles from Mother Earth News regarding the nutrition of truly pastured eggs versus the eggs the USDA uses for its tests. Care to see what the results were?
- 1/3 less cholesterol
- 1/4 less saturated fat
- 2/3 more vitamin A
- 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
- 3 times more vitamin E
- 7 times more beta carotene
- 4 to 6 times as much vitamin D
But how exactly did they get these results?
These amazing results come from 14 flocks around the country that range freely on pasture or are housed in moveable pens that are rotated frequently to maximize access to fresh pasture and protect the birds from predators. We had six eggs from each of the 14 pastured flocks tested by an accredited laboratory in Portland, Ore.
So we have an egg that is altogether more nutritious when the animal is raised in a more natural environment and allowed to eat its natural diet. Imagine that! Too bad the USDA and the Egg Board are unwilling to admit it.
Mike and I talk a lot about reframing our mindset and I think this is another key time for that. I pointed out before that it’s not that a diet based on real foods prevents disease, rather it doesn’t cause disease like the diet of most people. A pastured egg from a chicken eating something very close to the primal version of a chicken diet is our baseline, not the conventional egg. It’s not that pastured eggs are packed with more vitamins. It’s that conventional eggs have less nutrition. It’s all about context.
How Dangerous Are Raw Eggs?
The genesis for this article was a question I received about eating raw eggs and if it was dangerous. While I can’t decide for you if the risk is worth the reward, here is some information to help you make your decision on whether to cook your eggs or eat them raw.
According to most media reports, eating your eggs anything short of completely dried out and charred is tantamount to committing suicide. The little bug known as Salmonella might just take your life if you don’t thoroughly cook every bite of egg you take. This over-hyping from the media has ruined everything from Caesar dressing to the Whiskey Sour.
The reality is that there is a 1-in-20,000 to 1-in-30,000 chance that any given conventional egg will be contaminated with Salmonella. You have a 1-in-1,000 chance of dying of accidental drowning and a 1-in-6500 chance of dying from a slip and fall. And since few cases of Salmonella actually involve death, I think this is a pretty unimportant concern. Unfortunately, we don’t have statistics on pastured or organic eggs, but I’m betting it’s lower since healthy chickens and healthy conditions are less likely to harbor the Salmonella bacteria.
Raw egg whites contain an enzyme called avidin that acts as an anti-nutrient to bind biotin in the yolk. Also known as vitamin B7, biotin is instrumental in cell growth and the metabolism of fatty acids and amino acids, as well as blood sugar maintenance. Just like with most vitamins, it’s a bad idea to reduce their availability to the body.
If you’re going to eat your eggs raw, I’d advise eating the yolk without the white. The yolk contains all of the nutrition anyway, while the white contains the avidin. In fact, Chris Masterjohn questions whether it’s advisable to consume any egg whites at all. As he points out, some avidin remains even after cooking.
My Take On Raw Eggs
So while I’m not advising you one way or the other, I will say that, while I don’t include raw eggs in my diet, I think the risks are overstated, though I’m not sure that the benefits are all that great either. Oxidation of the fats and cholesterol in the yolk seems to me to be the focus of most raw advocates, so I opt instead for cooking most of my eggs without exposing the yolk to the air. Over-easy and hardboiled are how 90% of my eggs are eaten. While there is heat exposure, there is no light or air exposure to begin the process of oxidation. I do occasionally throw together an omelet though, cooked over low-medium heat in healthy saturated fats that are protective against oxidation.
Finding The Incredible, Edible Egg
So knowing that pastured eggs are markedly more nutritious than conventional eggs, along with being more flavorful and safer, you have another reason to support your local farmers. Pastured eggs are more expensive, but they are also more nutritious. Check out your local farmer’s markets and buying clubs.
Of course, you could eat more conventional eggs to ensure that you get enough vitamins, but then you’re also changing the number of calories and macronutrient composition of your diet. The bottom line is to just focus on eating foods as nature intended them rather than using the sub-par foods that the USDA deems as the baseline. Your health will thank you.Finally, here are some other egg posts looking at things not discussed in this post:
How many eggs do you eat each week and what’s your favorite way to eat them? Do you eat them raw? Why or why not?