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Eggs are a staple in our household. We eat eggs daily. And we eat a lot of them—up to four dozen every week, in fact. But have you noticed how many different types of eggs there are? I had, and I was wondering if there was a difference in nutritional value between pastured vs regular eggs.
As it turns out, eating eggs from pastured chickens is much more nutritious than eating generic supermarket eggs. In this article, I will talk about some of the reasons why these eggs are healthier and introduce you to Vital Farms, my favorite brand of pasture raised eggs. Last but not least, I will tell you how to determine the freshness of eggs based on the pack date code on the carton.
|Vital Farms Pastured Eggs|
|Vital Farms Lucky Ladies|
If you have ever taken a closer look at the kinds of eggs available at your local grocery store, you too may have wondered what the differences are. So let’s clarify the terminology first and compare:
If the packaging doesn’t use any of the terms listed below, you’re likely dealing with regular eggs. That means the egg laying hens live in cages and have virtually no room to move around (let alone to spread their wings). That’s the low end of the spectrum, and from a moral and animal welfare perspective, I would discourage you from buying such eggs—regardless of their nutritional value (or lack thereof).
The term “cage-free hens” means exactly what it sounds like: that the hens are not confined to cages, and instead can roam “freely” in what is most likely an overfilled coop or hen house. Chickens raised cage-free have no outdoor space, never breathe fresh air, and never see the light of day.
Free-range chickens have access to the outdoors for at least some part of the day. But according to the National Chicken Council, most chickens choose to stay close to food and water and don’t go outside. So from a practical point of view, the free range eggs that you enjoy for breakfast may still come from chickens that spend all day in a dirty and overcrowded hen house.
The USDA Organic seal identifies raw, fresh, and processed products with at least 95 percent organic ingredients. For poultry production, that usually applies to the chicken feed. Plus, all organic eggs come from hens that fall under the free-range category (see above). Note that while all organic eggs are also free-range, not all free range eggs are organic.
While hormones are legal for use in cattle, the FDA has not approved the use of hormones in poultry production. As a result, all chicken eggs sold in the United States are free of hormones. So if you see the label “no hormones added” on an egg carton, it’s meaningless.
No steroid hormone implants are approved for growth purposes in dairy cows, veal calves, pigs, or poultry. (Source: fda.gov.)
While hormones are not approved for poultry production, antibiotics are allowed. They are meant to keep infections at bay that are often the result of overfilled and dirty hen houses. As a result, when you buy eggs that feature the label “no antibiotics used,” chances are that the hens did not have better living conditions, but at least were not given antibiotics.
Omega-3 enriched means that the hens have received a diet supplemented by feed that contains sources of Omega-3 fatty acids, such as flax seeds. The designation doesn’t say anything about how the hens were raised or treated, so you may be eating Omega-3 enriched eggs from chickens that were kept in cages.
All chickens are raised on farms. Thus, the term doesn’t say anything about the hens’ living conditions. Cage-raised hens are also farm-raised.
Pastured eggs are the gold standard! This term means that the hens are allowed to roam free on open pastures. This is the most natural and expensive approach to raising poultry. As a result, you may have noticed that pasture raised eggs are typically much more expensive than other types of eggs. But from an ethical perspective, pasture-raised comes as close as it gets to the natural living conditions of hens.
Compared to eggs from caged hens, pastured hens’ eggs had twice as much vitamin E and long-chain Omega-3 fats, 2.5-fold more total Omega-3 fatty acids, and less than half the ratio of Omega-6:Omega-3 fatty acids (P<0.0001). Vitamin A concentration was 38 percent higher (P<0.05) in the pastured hens’ eggs than in the caged hens’ eggs, but the total vitamin A content per egg did not differ.
Pastured eggs have:
Among other health benefits, Omega-3s are essential for the health of your brain, and they can lower blood triglyceride levels. Unfortunately, most of us don’t eat enough of certain types of fish that contain Omega-3, so we buy fish oil capsules to supplement.
While I still encourage you to eat wild-caught salmon, sardines and other types of fish, it’s good to know that pastured eggs are a decent source of Omega-3. Despite the higher price tag compared to regular eggs, they are still a relatively inexpensive source of nutrients.
You probably know about the health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids. But do you also know about Omega-6 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a long-chain structure and are found in a variety of foods. The action of these long chain fatty acids is commonly called “anti-inflammatory,” though this is a misnomer. They are simply less inflammatory than Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 FAs and Omega-6 FAs compete for the same enzyme to eventually be converted into anti-inflammatory prostaglandins (PGE3) and less inflammatory leukotrienes and into pro-inflammatory prostaglandins (PGE2) and more inflammatory leukotrienes, respectively. [thepaleodiet.com]
What that means is that Omega-6 fatty acids are more likely to cause inflammation in your body. That’s why it’s essential to keep a specific Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio. It’s also the reason why you should avoid certain oils, as they have an unfavorable Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio.
Every time I visit family in Austria and my mom serves me eggs for breakfast, one thing sticks out. The yolk of “Austrian” eggs is a deep orange colour, whereas the yolk of most eggs in the U.S. is usually pretty pale. So I was wondering if there’s a difference in the quality and nutritional value that made one healthier than the other.
As we started buying pastured eggs here in the US, I also noticed the more saturated color of the yolk. As it turns out, the color of the yolk depends on what the hen eats (and specifically on the pigments in the feed). Pastured hens tend to eat more pigmented food, and the yolk reflects that.
Many of the pigments come from carotenoids, and not all of them are essential nutrients. But many of them have antioxidant properties, and some of them are essential substances (such as beta carotene) that our body converts into vitamin A.
As a result, the color itself is not a direct indication of quality or nutritional value. But knowing that, generally speaking, only pasture-raised hens eat pigmented food, it’s undoubtedly an indirect indication of higher nutritional value.
Most of you probably know by now that dietary cholesterol does not correlate with blood cholesterol. In other words, the cholesterol found in eggs does not raise your blood cholesterol levels and does not contribute to heart disease. It’s a myth, and you can read more about that in a previous article I wrote.
Over the past year, I have eaten over a thousand eggs. According to the myth, my veins should be clogged up with fat and cholesterol, and my numbers should be through the roof. But according to my latest blood work, they are not. Evidently, science was right after all. Here are my results, in case you were wondering:
For the past couple of months, we bought Organic eggs from Costco. As I mentioned above, hens that are fed a diet of organic feed are also free range and thus have access to the outdoors. But looking at the color of the yolk of those eggs, the hens that laid them were evidently not eating a lot of pigmented food. Ergo, they didn’t spend a lot of time on the pasture. So we were looking for alternatives and came across eggs from Vital Farms.
All eggs that fall under the Vital Farms brand are pasture-raised on a family farm. Every hen has at least 108 square feet of pasture to roam freely.
With a space allotment of 108 square feet per bird on rotated pastures, our girls forage and eat grass and bugs that form an essential part of their diet. Any less space than that is simply not enough for this to be true. So while you may see other farms claiming pasture-raising, without the Certified Humane shield, and the measure of space that’s required to carry that shield, it’s not true pasture-raising.
We started buying the “Alfresco Eggs,” which are pasture-raised (as all eggs from Vital Farms are). Vital Farms also offers organic and non-GMO eggs. Organic, in their case, means that the supplemental feed was organically grown.
As far as non-GMO is concerned, there is no scientific evidence that genetically modified food is harmful to your health. You may have heard the opposite, but as always, look at the scientific evidence and you’ll realize that no evidence exists to support that claim. So while I don’t care about their non-GMO offering, we will be looking at their organic eggs.
On all USDA-graded eggs, you should see a so-called “pack date” and “sell-by date” printed on the carton. The sell-by date is easy to read, but you may not be familiar with the Julian date system that manufacturers use for the pack date (also known as packaging date). The pack date follows a three-digit format; for example, 152—as you can see in the photo above I took of the egg carton in our fridge.
January 1 would show as 001 and December 31st would show as 365. As a result, the number 152 represents June 1st (unless it’s a leap year).
Yes, the feed does contain unprocessed soymeal because it is still the best source of the essential proteins and amino acids that hens need to lay. Vital Farms has had their eggs tested, and they do typically have lower levels of isoflavones than conventional factory eggs.
Vital Farms does feed the hens outdoors while they are still young (‘pullets’) to get them used to being outside, but after a few weeks, Vital Farms reverts to indoor feeding only. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, having the feed only available indoors doesn’t affect the amount of time they spend outside (hens know the most delicious snacks are in the pasture). Second, it keeps wild birds away (who would love to share the feed).
If my average egg consumption was one or two per month, I probably wouldn’t care if those eggs came from a pasture-raised animal or not. But we eat close to 48 eggs per week. That’s a lot! (Almost seven eggs a day, to be exact.)
Update: Since writing this article, my wife and I have started an intermittent fasting protocol. As a result, our egg consumption has gone down because now, only the kids eat breakfast. What hasn’t changed is the type of eggs we buy!
As a result, the nutritional value of each egg makes a significant difference to us. That’s why we started buying pastured eggs from Vital Farms. They raise happy hens, they do it in a sustainable manner, and you can see and taste the difference when you crack open one of their eggs.
Aside from the health benefits, you’ll notice a difference in the flavour. And buying pastured eggs is the morally and ethically right thing to do. The animals we raise, the environment we live in, and our bodies all deserve to be treated with respect. The choices we make as consumers directly influence that.
As a result, I highly recommend pastured poultry eggs from Vital Farms—and I don’t see myself going back to those pale yolks we had before. The benefits of pastured eggs are simply too significant.
I was born and raised in Austria. I speak German, English, and Spanish. Since moving to the U.S., I have lived and worked in the greater Atlanta area. In my twenties, I was a professional 100m sprinter. These days I do mostly CrossFit. I'm a technologist and Apple fan. I love science and don't believe anything unless there is proof. I follow a Ketogenic Paleo diet and intermittently fast every day. I'm married and have two trilingual kids. My goal with this blog is to share what I learn so that you can spend time on something else. Check out my latest Diet, Fitness, and Technology articles.