Crowning just about any food with a perfectly cooked, gorgeously oozy-yolked egg elicits deep yearning. Not only are eggs simply delicious, they are also highly nutritious — a relatively inexpensive, readily available, high-quality source of protein and other essential nutrients. However, not all eggs are created equal — most grocery stores offer a dizzying array of eggs with labels such as ‘cage free’, ‘free range’, and ‘organic.’ How can anyone be expected to make sense of all this? More importantly, how do the differences affect the taste and nutrition of what we cook with them?
Standard or commercially raised eggs (the ones without any special labels) are the most common eggs you will find in supermarkets and are typically the cheapest. However, the low price tag does come with tradeoffs. Commercially raised eggs come from farms where hens live under conditions aimed at lowering cost and increasing yield. Multiple hens by the tens of thousands are commonly housed in rows and rows of cramped cages in windowless barns. Sanitary conditions are often poor and illness can spread rapidly, so hens raised in battery cages are usually fed antibiotics, hormones, and other drugs. Commercially raised eggs form the baseline for egg nutrition and taste, and it only goes up from there.
The conditions of hens raised as cage-free and free-range eggs are an improvement over commercial cages. The hens may not be enjoying quite the conditions these terms might conjure in your head, but they are able to perform natural functions, such as stretching their wings. While there are reasons to prefer eggs labeled cage-free and free-range over commercial eggs, due to lack of USDA regulation of egg labels and wide variance in their meaning from one producer to another, the labels do not consistently portray the conditions or diets of the hens, and therefore, the eggs do not necessarily provide significant nutritional benefits over commercial eggs. That said, there are certainly producers committed to natural, humane, hormone- and antibiotic-free animal care whose eggs do provide nutritional benefits. The easiest way to be sure about how eggs were produced is to visit the farm website or contact them via phone or email.
Major nutritional benefits over commercial eggs can be found in the eggs of pasture-raised hens, also called pastured eggs. Pasture-raised hens are raised roaming and dining quite freely on pasture, with a diet composed primarily of grass and complemented by bugs, worms, and other insects they may find.
Studies comparing pastured eggs to commercial eggs have shown significant reductions in cholesterol and fat content, as well as major increases in many health-boosting nutrients, such as vitamin A, vitamin D, folic acid, and omega-3s. The results of a study by Mother Earth News revealed pastured eggs offer a nutritional benefit of about 33% less cholesterol, 25% less saturated fat, 66% more vitamin A, twice the amount of omega-3s, 4 to 6 times as much vitamin D.
On the taste front, pastured eggs typically have deep yellow-orange yolks, taste richer, somewhat meatier, and have more decadent texture than the standard egg. In every regard they are simply more of everything that we want an egg to be. They lend a delicious flavor and beautiful yellow color to pastas and truly are the star of egg-centric dishes such as eggs benedict.
Pastured eggs typically come from relatively small productions by local farmers. These eggs are unlikely to show up in major supermarket chains, but many local farmers sell pasture-raised eggs straight from their farms, at farmers markets, and as part of some CSAs and other local food subscription programs. While their labeling is equally unregulated, the nature of where you buy pastured eggs makes it easy to find out about how the eggs were produced by simply asking in-person.
You can expect to pay more for pastured eggs, about $4 to $7 for a dozen, but if you consider the health and taste benefits to you, better quality of life for the hens, that you are supporting local farmers, and that the eggs were likely laid just a few days ago, they are well worth it.
This content was originally posted in a different form on examiner.com.
© 2012 by Revel Kitchen