Our Contenders: Pastured Eggs vs. The Rest
The upper box is the one we get from pastured chickens at the local farm run by Jordan & Laura Greenwho learned from none other than Joel Salatin at Polyface (I love that we live just 40 minutes from there). The chickens are allowed to roam mostly free in very large sunny areas, make nests and lay eggs where they want, and eat their species-specific diet of mostly bugs, rodents, and grasses. They are supplemented with a very small amount of feed. I buy them for $3/dozen.
The lower box is from the store. I should point out I didn’t buy the cheap ones. The box promotes all the current “buzz” words to make health-conscious people pay extra for them — they are “USDA organic,” “Grade A,” “cage-free, hormone and antibiotic free,” and “vegetarian fed” (even though chickens aren’t vegetarians). They were the most expensive ones in the store (about $4/dozen).
From that steep price and all the marketing on the box, you’d think they were also blessed by the Pope and sprinkled with holy water. But are they really that good?
The Five Signs of a High-Quality, Highly Nutritious Egg
In general your best and maybe only chance of finding a highly nutritious egg is to know where it came from. Find a local producer who raises “pastured” chickens on their species-specific diet (as opposed to just cage-free or vegetarian fed). Chickens love lots of open space, sunlight, and grazing on bugs and grasses, and even small rodents.
Whatever you do, don’t believe that just because the eggs are from “cage-free” or “organic” chickens that they are high quality or as nutritious. Yes, they are better and you’re getting few synthetic hormones, chemicals, and antibiotics, but they should not be considered high quality because the chickens are not eating what chickens eat. And very often “cage free” means nothing more than they are in a barn running around — they have no access to grass, bugs, and very little access to natural sunlight.
But what if I don’t know where the egg comes from? Thankfully, you can tell the quality of an egg with a high degree of accuracy just from looking at them. A properly fed, healthy egg will show five distinct features:
- A Strong Shell. If you tap the shell once and it easily breaks, it can be a sign the chicken who laid it was not in optimal health. This often relates to the amount of protein in the hen’s diet as well as their age. Shell color is not a good indicator — it just denotes the breed of hen.
- A Dark Orange-Yellow Yolk. This is the big one and is indicative of what the hen ate during the time it laid that egg. The darker orange it is, the more grasses, bugs, grubs, and worms it ate. The color is from beta-carotene (yep, the same thing that makes carrots orange) and related substances called lutein and zeaxanthin — all beneficial anti-oxidants that are associated with eye health, brain health, and lower cancer rates. A study in the Journal of Nutrition (Aug 2004) showed Lutein to be best absorbed from egg yolks over vegetable sources, likely due to the fact that it is fat-soluble (meaning it needs fat to be absorbed). Some commercial egg producers are feeding chickens with food coloring or other by-products to make yolks more yellow, but they don’t yet have to put it on the label (as in the case of farmed salmon). It’s interesting that one of the ingredients they use to do this (astaxanthin) is actually associated with eye problems in humans — the complete opposite effect of pastured eggs!
- A Tall, Domed Yolk. A high quality egg’s yolk should hold it’s shape as a nice, tall dome. If the yolk is more flat and kind of spread out, you’re looking at a lower quality, less nutritious egg.
- A Clear Egg “White.” If the clear (what some refer to as the “white”) has any color to it, from a little yellow to green, you’re probably looking at a poor quality egg from a chicken who was not optimally healthy. This part of the egg should be perfectly clear prior to cooking.
- Less Running of the Clear. You’ll notice that the clear of the egg will have a more distinct shape and then around that will be some runoff that just spreads around the pan. A high-quality egg from a pastured chicken (which again is different from free range and cage free) will not have as much run-off. The less there is, the better quality your egg.
Warning: Store-bought eggs will also go through a “sanitizing” wash. These washes remove the egg’s natural defensive coating so they don’t last as long as new bacteria and oxygen can more easily enter the egg.
Are pastured eggs more nutritious? Some other bloggers and nutritionists will say that a pastured egg with a darker-colored yolk is no more nutritious than any other egg. These claims are flat out nonsense. A 2007 study showed that pastured chickens eating their species-specific diet had 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more Vitamin A, 2x the Omega 3′s, 3x times the Vitamin E, and 7x the amount of beta carotene. They also have higher levels of other non-vitamin anti-oxidants such as lutein and zeaxanthin as stated above.
Now that you’re an Egg-spert, Let’s compare our Two Eggs…
While my camera skills and the lighting isn’t the best, you can probably spot the store bought, supposedly “USDA organic” “cage free” “healthy” egg on the left — it’s got a bright yellow yolk, slightly dis-colored “clear” part, and what you may not be able to tell is that while it has a distinct shape to the clear, it was also far more runny.
The pastured one on the right has a large domed, dark orange yolk, a very clear “clear,” and was well-shaped and less runny. And I have to say the yolk of the pastured egg tasted awesome, while the bright yellow one tasted a little bit like nothing.
These are just a few of the reasons to buy eggs from local pastured chickens. If you can’t find these in your area, there are a few companies I trust. One is FRENZ, which are sold at Whole Foods, but there are several others.
But the point is this: Never trust labels or buzz words on egg packaging. Words like “cage free” “vegetarian fed” and even “omega 3 enriched” mean almost nothing.
Just know where your eggs came from, know what the chickens ate and how they live, and look for the 5 signs I’ve shared above. If you do that, you’ll never go wrong eating eggs. I personally enjoy up to a dozen per week.
“I wanted to add this comment from the original website, since it was very relevant to this article”
Couple errors. Shell strength is a factor of minerals, not protein. Chickens are often fed supplemental minerals (azomite) to increase shell strength, small scale flocks sometimes are fed ground up shells to recycle the minerals back into the chicken. Technically, a factory chicken should have a stronger egg, commercial egg production companies care about egg strength, because the eggs must be handled by machinery, and broken eggs cost money. So the use of mineral additives (which are natural) is ubiquitous. Your family farm source could also be supplementing with this (they use a “Small” amount of feed, subjective statements which always make me suspicious, afterall). But egg strength isn’t going to be a factor of egg health, since usually factory eggs are in fact stronger. Second error is with the viscosity of the yolk and white. It isn’t health or diet of the chicken, it is the age of the egg. Your store bought eggs are almost always going to be much older, even if you buy them on the same day, and in your test you bought them days (weeks?) apart. Give your other eggs a month to mellow out and they’ll get saggy too. You’re right on the yolk color but for a proper comparison you need to make sure the chickens are the same breed (and they aren’t). A good experiment, take two chickens of the same breed, perhaps from the same mother, segregate them, put one on the free range forage diet, the other on corn and soy commercial feed. You’ll probably get the same result on yolk color, and you’ll have removed remaining uncontrolled variables.