Monday, October 14, 2013

Cage-Free, Free-Range, Pastured: Crack the Confusion Over Egg Labels

What do these terms really mean -- for chickens and for your nutrition?

Chickens on rail
What do terms like "cage-free" and "free-range" really mean?

Eggs are just eggs, right? Well, perhaps not. It seems like every time you turn around there is a new phrase on the label of a carton of eggs. Some cartons claim the eggs within are “cage-free” or “free-range,” while others say “pastured” or “pasture-raised.” 

All of these terms sound great, but what do they mean for your nutrition? Here is a break-down so you can make an informed decision the next time eggs are on your grocery list.

Cage-Free

Hens producing these eggs are not confined in cages, but large flocks are generally kept in barns or warehouses. The hens are able to roam around a bit, dust bathe and spread their wings, but often they do not have access to the outdoors. Nutritionally, these eggs are not much different from conventional eggs.

Free-range

These eggs come from hens that were given some access to an outdoor space, but there are no regulations regarding what this space must look like. Unless you visit the farm yourself, it’s impossible to know if the hens are allowed time in a grassy lawn or on a patch of barren concrete. One research article found free-range eggs contain higher levels of beneficial monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats than conventional eggs.

Pastured or pasture-raised

There are no federal regulations for this term, but if this label is being used with integrity, these eggs come from hens that spend their lives roaming around on fresh pasture with access to shelter. The hens are able to eat their natural diet of fresh greens and bugs, and they can spread their wings and engage in other normal chicken behaviors. Nutritionally, these eggs boast lower levels of cholesterol and saturated fat while offering higher levels of beta-carotene, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E.

By Ashley Saffle, Bastyr dietetic intern, and Debra Boutin, MS, RD, chair and dietetic internship director, Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science at Bastyr University.

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