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Regular vs. Pastured Eggs – What You Need to Know!

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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.

Reviewed Brands and Products

Product
Vital Farms Pastured Eggs

$6.99

Vital Farms Lucky Ladies

$7.99

Types of Eggs

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:

  • Conventional eggs vs. Pastured eggs
  • Cage-free eggs vs. Pastured eggs
  • Free range eggs vs. Pastured eggs
  • Organic eggs vs. Pastured eggs
  • Omega-3 enriched eggs vs. Pastured eggs

Conventional Eggs

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).

Conventional egg production
Conventional egg production. Image credit: Huffington Post

Cage Free Eggs

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.

Nutritional value of Pastured eggs vs Regular eggs
Cage-free sounds better than it is.

Free Range Eggs

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.

Organic Eggs

Organic eggs

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.

No Hormones Added

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.)

No Antibiotics

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 Eggs

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.

Farm-raised

Farm-raised eggs

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

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.

Pasture-raised hens
Pasture-raised hens. Image credit: Vital Farms

Nutritional Value Of Pastured Eggs vs. Regular Eggs

A study from 2010 compared the vitamin A, vitamin E, and fatty acid composition of the eggs produced by both caged chickens and pastured chickens. The results shouldn’t come as a surprise.

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:

  • Twice as much vitamin E
  • 38 percent higher vitamin A concentration
  • Twice as much long-chain Omega-3 fats
  • 2.5x more total Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Less than half the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3

The Importance Of Omega-3

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.

Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 Fatty Acids

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.

Is The Color Of The Yolk An Indication Of The Egg’s Nutritional Value?

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.

Color of the egg yolk an indication of nutritional value?

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.

Eggs And Cholesterol

Eggs and cholesterol

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:

  • Total cholesterol: 175 (Normal: below 200)
  • Triglycerides: 46 (Normal: below 149)
  • HDL cholesterol: 53 (Normal: above 39)
  • LDL cholesterol: 113 (Normal: below 130)
  • TC/HDL ratio: 3.30 (Normal: below 5; ideal: below 3.5)

What Kind Of Eggs Does The Kummer Family Eat?

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.

Vital Farms Pastured-Raised Eggs
Alfresco pasture-raised eggs by Vital Farms

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.

Egg Packaging Code And Freshness

Deciphering the date code on egg cartons
Deciphering the date code on egg cartons

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).

Frequently Asked Questions About Vital Farms Eggs

Does Vital Farms Use Soy In The Feed?

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.

Are The Hens Fed Inside Or Outside?

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).

Conclusion

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.

About the Author Michael Kummer

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.

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  • Sheila says:

    Hi, I love vital farms pasture raised eggs. My question to you is have you received any compensation from vital farms for what you have written about them ?

    • Hi Sheila!

      Yes, they sent me a couple of coupons. But it’s worth noting that we ate their eggs before I did the review and we still do. A couple of free eggs were not the reason I wrote the article :)

  • Daniel Klein says:

    Love this article, Michael! Drives me crazy when I go to Trader Joes and they’ve got every which way of Cage-Free, Free-Range, Organic, etc. eggs. I studied up on this a while back. Plus, I’m from Iowa and I’ve looked into those mega barns where there are thousands of chickens packed in with the lights burning day and night.

    And yes, those “Free-Range”chickens are not bright enough, nor have the inclination to make it down to the end of the building to make it out that 18” high door. So, there is no such thing as “free-range” except for pasture raised.

    We only buy the Vital farms eggs as well. I’m not so concerned about the organic part, coming from them, though.

    Thanks again for another valuable article!

  • Carson Glenn says:

    This was good information! The next level of relevant information I would add is how to determine freshness from the packing-date code.

  • Athlete Diet Plans says:

    Informative post, this is. It is always nice to come across a post that is useful.

  • Jodi Hubbell says:

    Great article! While I knew all of this, I know others don’t and I will share a link with my friends and clients. Thank you!

    I am a little surprised on your stance on GMO’s though. At the end you state “the environment we live in and our body deserve to be treated well” and many GMO crops increase the use of pesticides which is not good for either.

    • Hi Jodi,

      Thanks for your feedback, I appreciate it! My understanding is that the purpose of GMO crops is to make them less vulnerable to pests, so that should result in fewer pesticides being used. What makes you think the opposite is the case?

      • TheGoodEggs says:

        Thanks for starting this important conversation. There is substantial, recent evidence that GMOs are increasing the amount of toxic chemicals in our environment and our bodies.

        The problem with GMOs is not so much in the food product itself, but it is as Jodi points out, the increasing the amount of pesticides put into the environment has a tremendously negative effect on water and soil pollution, not to mention, human health.
        GMOs, almost exclusively used in conventional agriculture (and never used in organic agriculture), were first introduced to the US in 1994, and since then applications of glyphosate, commonly called Roundup, has doubled for corn and increased 39% for soy. These grains are major components in all livestock feed.
        While it seems that GMOS would require less toxic chemicals, the reality is that their evolving resistances require ever increasing applications of pesticides.
        How does that affect people? As recently as May of 2018, studies came out showing that 70% of our drinkable water contains evidence of glyphosate AND more importantly, since GMOs were introduced 24 years ago, human exposure to glyphosate, identified in 2015 by World Health Organization as a human carcinogen, has increased 500%. This is just one side effect of chemically grown GMO crops.

        Is there a healthier option? Organic production does not put synthetic herbicides or pesticides into our environment and organic has exceptionally high animal welfare standards. So, when we buy groceries, we need to look at the ripple effect of our purchases, and ask ourselves what kind of a future are we really buying into.

      • Essie says:

        The pesticide, Round Up (if using the Monsanto brand seed..and yes, the weed killer you buy at your local home improvement store) is already in the seed. They no longer have to spray crops with pesticides but the pesticides are definitely still in the food.

        GMOs are bad for the environment and sustainability, and prevent farmers from owning and planting their own seeds. There are many, many more negative effects that GMOs create but that’s a whole other lengthy conversation.

        Whether or not you care about eating GMOs, their impact on the environment and society is enough to give one pause.

        Also, much to my delight, my local Costco has changed over to organic, pastured eggs.

        Thanks for posting this article. My husband was asking why I don’t buy the regular cage-free eggs at Costco and I shared the information you posted with him.

        • bjohns7778 says:

          It should be noted that RoundUp (glyphosate) is a non-selective herbicide, not a pesticide. That is not to say that a lot of the points you made are not correct. Glyphosate resistance in weeds is real and resulting in increased applications and I don’t want it in my food or water either. But your arguments hold more weight when you don’t include a miscategorization of the chemical your demonizing right off the bat.

      • sten bjorsell says:

        Michael, if you read Gabe Brown’s latest book, “From Dirt to Soil”, you can find out how to make crops pest resistant without pesticides! A number of other spin off effects to. One secret is to never use chemical fertilizers, aka NPK. |Once not used all plants root system expands in search of mykorrhiza connections and nutrients. These nutrients are what the plants need to build decent immune systems. Same for us. And when we do not get them from the plants or the eggs we eat, we buy supplements, which is hit and miss as our science has not yet found the “ideal” supplements. Safer getting the “proven ones” from plants or from animals eating such plants, like in the past.
        One very interesting thing in the book is that real high carbon soil can be built in a few years, not 100’s of years that we have been taught. An eyeopener for me at least!