Lindsay Malone, MS, RD, CSO, LD
Free-range? Hormone-free? Organic? Humane certified? Choosing the most nutritious eggs shouldn’t be complicated, but how is the average busy shopper supposed to decode all the health claims made on egg cartons and choose the best option?
The good news is nutritious eggs are a lot easier to find than you might think. And by spending a little time choosing the right eggs, you can access a powerhouse of nutrients to boost your immune system and fuel all the cells in your body for optimal health.
Decoding Egg Claims for Maximum Nutrition
When it comes to descriptors, eggs are at the forefront. However – many of the claims have no basis or universal standard. Considering that eggs are a main food staple in most of our lives, it is worth spending a little time getting to know the farmer to better understand what processes they use to ensure healthy, safe and content chickens that eat and move to maximize the nutrients in their eggs.
First, let’s decode the claims you may see:
Organic: Regulated by the USDA. Chickens must have access to outdoors,
cannot be fed arsenic, antibiotics or genetically modified feed. Organic
chickens cannot be kept in cages and are subject to strict record-keeping and
Cage-Free: Inside a building but not in cages. No access to the outdoors.
Free-Range: This misleading claim can be used as long as the producer can
prove that chickens have access to the outdoors (could be a small door to a
Hormone-Free: All eggs commercially sold in the US are hormone-free.
Vegetarian Fed: Chickens aren’t vegetarians, so this isn’t necessarily a good
thing. To produce nutritious eggs, chickens need to roam the pasture and eat
bugs and worms.
Pastured: There is no standard definition for this, but pastured chickens
should be kept mostly outside on dirt or grass. The gold standard of pastured
eggs is when the chickens are free to roam, they have green grass year round,
and the coop is mobile and rotated to patches of fresh grass.
What are Mobile Chicken Coops?
Mobile chicken coops are a pretty simple concept. The traditional coop is constructed on wheels which can be moved every few days to a new, fresh plot of land – hopefully green pasture loaded with different types of plants and crawly critters. Alexandre Family Farm, a regenerative dairy farm and chicken ranch in Northern California, uses mobile chicken coops in concert with their dairy operations for a mutually beneficial relationship for the cows, the chickens and the land.
The prestigious non-profit consumer food watchdog group, Cornucopia Institute, gives The Alexandre Kids chicken operation it’s highest marks. Their scorecard reflects an investigation into 28 areas that are scored from 0-100.
So why does Cornucopia rate Alexandre Kids so high?
- Alexandre hens roam freely in the fresh coastal air and sunshine, grazing on green, lush organic grass and irrigated dairy pastures consisting of 50 to 100 varieties of plant species ranging from grasses to forbs, herbs and clovers.
- The hens enjoy a limited daily feeding of a mixture of organic grains, minerals and oyster shell.
- They never have any chemicals, hormones or antibiotics.
- The chicken coops, which provide a portable home with nesting boxes, are moved every few days to give the hens new pasture and to give the pasture new fertilizer from the hens.
- Everyday, the chickens choose to go outside and forage on grass and bugs, and it is common to see chickens intermingled with grazing cows.
- The effort of care for the hens and their environment shows in the nutrition and immune-boosting properties of their eggs.
The Immune-Boosting Properties of Truly Pastured Eggs
When chickens are left to their own devices, they roam free, feasting on grass, bugs and worms. And when they get to move around, as in the case of mobile chicken coops, they have a constant supply of new plants and bugs and grubs to feast on.
Moving the chickens ensures they have the diet they need to produce eggs rich in vitamins, minerals and healthy fats. Animals that eat green plants produce meat, eggs, and dairy higher in anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats. This is because green plants contain alpha-linoleic acid, a precursor to the more commonly known EPA and DHA omega 3 fats found in wild fish that eat algae (another green plant), and fish oil supplements. But, why spend money on expensive supplements when you can get the benefit from foods you are going to eat anyway?
Eggs from chickens that do not get moved to new, lush pastures regularly are not eating green plants all the time and, therefore, would produce eggs with lower amounts of omega 3 fats.
This concept of nutrient density holds true with other nutrients found in eggs. The 2007 Mother Earth egg testing project (*) found that pasture-raised eggs had higher amounts of critical nutrients that function as antioxidants, calm inflammation and boost immune function. The benefits included:
- 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
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
According to the egg testing project, pastured eggs had two times more omega 3 fats than conventionally raised eggs. Omega 3 fats are an essential fatty acid that calm inflammation and support the essential functions of the immune system to identify and kill potentially dangerous bacteria and viruses (*).
The pastured eggs also had more of a fat-soluble nutrient, vitamin A. In fact, the eggs from roaming chickens had 67% more vitamin A! Vitamin A serves as an antioxidant protecting cells from everyday damage like UV rays, pollution and second-hand smoke. In addition to functioning as an antioxidant, this crucial nutrient also aids in immune function, growth and development as well as healthy vision (*).
Vitamin E is another fat-soluble vitamin that functions as an antioxidant and enhances immune function (*). This vitamin inserts itself into the membranes of cell walls to protect the cell from invaders. Pastured eggs had three times more vitamin E than conventionally raised eggs. Vitamin E also enhances immune function.
Beta Carotene (a precursor to Vitamin A):
Beta carotene is part of a family of phytonutrients (plant nutrients) that research has shown prevents several types of cancer and other chronic diseases. Scientists attribute this to their potent antioxidant effect as well as beta carotene’s ability to enhance cell-mediated immune function (*). Pastured eggs were not just one or two times higher in beta carotene but seven times higher than regular eggs, according to the Mother Jones Egg Project.
It’s clear that pastured eggs are materially different from eggs coming from conventionally raised chickens. Just like humans, what they eat and how they move influences their health. So it’s no surprise that by eating a nutrient-dense diet and getting fresh air and exercise, these chickens produce eggs that are a true superfood.
Don’t Be Fooled by Imitation
Remember, there is limited regulation of the term ‘pastured’. So to know if you are getting the nutrient powerhouse eggs created by free-roaming, grass-eating chickens, you’ll need to take a peek behind the scenes.
After years in the egg business, the head of the Alexandre Kids chicken operation, 5th generation farmer Christian Alexandre has some tips for identifying the most nutritious eggs:
- Look for eggs from chickens raised in mobile coops that are moved each week or more to new patches of grass. This ensures chickens have access to fresh grass and critters year-round.
- Egg shells should be light brown in color. The lighter the shade of brown, the more time the hen has spent outside soaking up Vit. D. This also translates into healthier, more nutrient-dense eggs.
- Eggs will feel heavy to hold. Pasture-raised eggs have a heavier feel than conventionally raised eggs. If you’re used to the store-bought $1 a dozen eggs, this may be one of the first things you notice. No need to take an individual egg out of the carton, simply pick up a whole carton of pastured eggs and a whole carton of conventionally raised and the difference will be clear.
- Egg yolks will be a rich orange/yellow color. The color of the egg yolk is directly connected to the diet of the hen. Pasture-raised hens that eat lots of grass will have richly colored yolks. Christian warns to ask if chickens are fed to artificially enhance color or omega 3 content as some farms will supplement their diet with marigold seed and omega 3 oils to cut costs and deceive consumers.
An Ounce of Prevention for a Pound of Cure
The old adage usually pertains to healthcare but can be applied to locating and preparing the most nutritious foods for you and your family without abusing the land or the animals that make it all possible. Raising chickens in mobile coops indeed takes more time and effort than factory farming, and the eggs themselves are going to be a bit more expensive. But, the tradeoff for that is a nutrient-rich egg you can feel good about feeding your family.