Tips for Decoding Egg Labels

Shandra Martinez

| 3 min read

Eggs are one of the most versatile foods in the kitchen. You can serve them sunny-side-up for breakfast, hard-boil and slice them onto a salad for lunch, or scramble them into spicy noodles and vegetables for a pad Thai main dish at dinner. But when you’re buying a dozen eggs from the store, do you ever find all the words on the carton confusing? Let’s decode those egg labels.
If eggs are on your weekly menu, it’s important to understand what kind of eggs you are buying. Most egg carton labels have lots of words - and some of them may not really mean what you think they do. What’s the difference between cage-free and all natural? Is farm fresh the same as organic? It turns out, there’s more to decoding an egg label than you might think.

Common terms

Here are the most common terms you’ll see on an egg carton, and what they mean.
Cage-free: This means the hens that laid the eggs don’t live their lives in cages. However, it does not mean these hens have access to the outdoors. It also doesn’t guarantee they have adequate space to move around.
Free-range: In theory, this means the hens have access to the outdoors, but in reality this can mean different things. The hens that laid these eggs might spend their days in wide, outdoor spaces like huge farm fields, only coming inside at night to roost and sleep. But it can also mean the hens live in giant, crowded poultry barns where they get only an occasional glimpse of the sun, but don’t actually get outside.
Pasture-raised: There are no actual regulations on this kind of a claim. Generally, it means the hens are allowed to roam free on a farm pasture. 
USDA organic: This description is highly-regulated. It means the hens that laid the eggs were not living in cages, they did have some kind of outdoor access, and they were fed organic feed.
Some third-party organizations assess and award egg farms based on animal welfare guidelines. These include Certified Humane, American Humane Certified and Animal Welfare Approved.
Seeing other fancy descriptions on your egg cartons? They are just marketing terms and don’t mean anything specific about how the hens lived or how they were cared for. These marketing phrases include farm fresh, hormone-free and all natural.
These labeling terms and marketing descriptions are found on eggs sold in grocery stores. If you purchase eggs from your local farmer’s market, community supported agriculture (CSA) group, or a local farm, you can always ask the farmer directly about how the hens are raised, how much time they get to spend outside each day, and if they are fed organic feed. Most farmers who sell eggs welcome a chance to talk about their livestock and may even have some photos to show you of their hens.

Nutritional benefits

Eggs are a diet staple across much of the world. According to the American Egg Board, hen eggs are a nutrient-dense protein source with a long list of benefits. They’re an affordable food that can be a main dish or a side dish at any meal, with these nutrition highlights:
  • 70 calories per egg
  • 6 grams of protein per egg
  • Good source of essential nutrients
  • Can support improve eye health and brain function
  • Helps build muscle and improves muscle strength
  • Easily digested
So the next time you’re at the store, be a label decoder and pick the kind of eggs that match your preferences. Then all that’s left to do is whip up some amazing egg dishes.
Photo credit: Getty Images

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