Supermarket Angst Part II: What Eggs Should I Buy?
Recently I wrote about marketplace confusion when it comes to milk -- in terms of cost, health, the environment and animal welfare. Today, I'm taking on eggs, another area where my bargain-sensor and desire to eat better end upmutually lost in a sea of terminology. In future installments, I'll look at poultry and meat choices as well.
Eggs are very nutritious, and conventional eggs represent one of the best protein bargains on the market -- you can often get a dozen eggs, 12 protein servings, for around $2 or less. When you get into cage-free, organic and other more rarified eggs, you're looking at $3-$5 a dozen or more, which is still a bargain when compared to the same amount of meat with similar classifications. A meat protein serving is 3 ounces, which means to equal a dozen eggs you'd have to buy 2.25 pounds of meat. You're not going to find 2 pounds of organic meat for $5.
But are eggs with organic and cage-free labels worth the extra cost? What about other labels, like free range and "fertile," and those labeled touting high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids? In the past couple of years, I decided that I was willing and able to pay the average $1/dozen price difference to purchase cage-free eggs instead of regular. I usually buy a brand called Spareboe, whose cage-free eggs sell at my favorite store for $2.67 and for around $2.99 at some other bargain stores.
But I wondered: How was this one brand able to sell cage-free eggs for less than other producers? Were their chickens living under worse conditions than others? And does cage-free equal cruelty free? Are the eggs I'm feeding my kids safe even though the chickens aren't eating organic feed?
The Humane Society of the United States has campaigned to ban battery hen cages, a movement that so far has succeeded in California, and the organization's description of a typical laying hen's life in a cage is enough to confirm at least one thing for me: I don't want to go back to buying regular eggs. The same page also comes right out and confirms my worry that cage free is not equivalent to cruelty free: "the mere absence of cages doesn't necessarily ensure a high level of welfare."
But it does sound like buying cage-free is a big step in the right direction; cage-free hens usually get to lay their eggs in nests and express other natural behaviors, sparing them a lot of stress. But if I do want more assurance that the eggs we eat are truly cruelty free -- and my neighborhood does not allow backyard hen-raising -- what should I be buying? The Humane Society also has a handy guide to a whole bunch of labels that appear on egg cartons, many of which I have never seen.
One claim the guide gets out of the way: "natural" doesn't mean anything when it comes to animal welfare. It also explains that USDA has no standards for use of the term "free range" when it comes to egg production, but as a general rule, the difference between eggs labeled cage-free and those labeled free-range is that the latter has some degree of outdoor access. There are no rules dictating whether that means they spend most of their lives in sunny pastures, happily pecking at bugs, or if they get to venture out a little door into a tiny outdoor dirt pen once a week. Hens laying certified organic eggs are required to have outdoor access, but again, how much and what kind are not specified.
Eggs labeled fertile are layed by hens who are kept around roosters, which would not be the case if they were caged. So it's another way of saying cage free or free range.
Based on this information, I DON'T feel that it would be worth it to spend more to upgrade from the cage-free eggs to free-range or organic, just based on animal welfare. There just aren't adequate standards to guarantee that these labels mean less animal cruelty.
There are two labels that guarantee hens a better life -- "certified humane" and "animal welfare approved." But I have never seen these labels, and no wonder -- according to the Humane Society, the second, stricter category has NO participating producers who sell to supermarkets.
Another strategy for getting eggs I'd feel good about would be buying from a local producer or Community-Supported Agriculture program where I can see that the hens are doing ok or where people I trust could vouch for their welfare. That's definitely not out of the question, but it will take some research.
Then there's the question of health -- is it worth it to upgrade to organic or Omega-3 eggs for health reasons? Well, the main advantage touted with organic eggs is the pesticide-free feed consumed by the hens. But is pesticide residue from chicken feed really a health risk in conventional eggs?
I have found this a tough area to research; there are plenty of health food advocates out there who simply state that conventional eggs contain pesticide residues, but any reference to studies I've found online are too technical for me to decipher. The only straightforward advice I could find came from Shape magazine, which advised that eggs contain a minimal level of pesticide residue if any and that I needn't worry about it.
As for the claim -- touted on many health food Web sites -- that organic or free-range eggs contain more nutrients?
Well, it does seem sensible that chickens allowed to indulge in a natural diet of bugs and grass would pick up a broader range of nutrients to pass on to their eggs than those pecking at ground-up corn all day. But I was unable to find anything resembling a study on this, and besides, as I said before, there is no guarantee that an egg labeled free-range or organic comes from a hen that ate anything different from caged hens or cage-free ones kept in a warehouse. A chicken eating organic corn is still eating corn.
I'd say that if you take the health claims seriously, you've got to buy eggs from a source that you know allows its hens to get outside and eat the good stuff.
As for me, my reading has encouraged me to seek out a source of eggs that are probably more nutritious than the supermarket fare, but once I find my local options, I'm going to look hard at the price before I make any final decisions. I think eggs from hens that get outdoors are probably a bit healthier and a bit kinder, but there are limits on how much more I'd be willing to pay for these hazy distinctions.
That leaves just one fancy label to decide on: Omega-3-enhanced eggs. Fortunately, this is an easy one. There are LOTS of sources out there that advise these eggs are not worth the extra cost. In fact, the Center for Science in the Public Interest conducted a campaign asking the FDA to stop egg producers from claiming Omega-3 eggs provide any extra health benefits at all.