Eggs – Unscrambling the Labels
Eggs, especially egg whites are considered a source of high-quality protein. But picking up a carton of eggs in the supermarket has become increasingly confusing. There are wide ranges of claims and promises on the cartons, and not all of them are meaningful. Here's what to look for to make the best decision.
Find the freshest. Most cartons have a Sell By / Best By / Use By stamp on them. However, this is an optional label, unless required by your state. A much more reliable number on every label is the three-digit day of the year the eggs were packaged.
Look on the edge of the carton. Either above or below the “best by” date you'll see a couple other numbers. One has a “P” followed by some numbers. That's the plant number where the eggs were packaged. Then you'll see a 3-digit number. That's the day of the year the eggs were packaged. On January 1st the number will be 001 and on December 31st the number will be 365.
If they're properly refrigerated, fresh eggs are good for 4 to 5 weeks from the date they were packaged. It's not uncommon to have eggs sitting right beside each other on the shelf, with one carton two weeks or more older. As eggs age, they may not fluff up as much for a meringue or taste as good in an omelet. Choose the ones with the most recent packaged date and skip any containers that don't have a date on them.
(Most eggs you buy today are sprayed with a little mineral oil. It helps seal the porous shell and prevents bacteria from getting inside. If you make hard-boiled eggs, that washes away the mineral oil. To be safe, eat hard-boiled eggs that are refrigerated within a week.)
If you're unsure how old an egg is, you can use the water test. Place an egg in a bowl of water. If it floats, it's very old, get rid of it. If it stands up on end, it's stale and should be discarded. If it tilts up, it's about a week old and may be questionable. If it lays flat, it's fresh and generally safe to eat.
Cage-Free is the first level of freedom for chickens. There may still be hundreds packed together into a small space, they're just not in cages. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), cage-free hens must be able to, “roam vertically and horizontally in indoor houses, and have access to fresh food and water. They must allow hens to exhibit natural behaviors and include enrichments such as scratch areas, perches and nests. Hens must have access to litter, protection from predators and be able to move in a barn in a manner that promotes bird welfare.”
Free-Range is cage-free, plus a door to the outside. However, there is no guarantee hens will ever use that door. According to the USDA, “The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material.”
Pasture-raised is the next step beyond cage-free and free-range. There is no legal definition of pasture-raised by the USDA, so look for the number 108+ or “Certified Humane” on the label. That indicates each egg-laying hen has 108 square feet of space or more to live and move around in.
California Shell Egg Food Safety Compliant (CA SEFS Compliant) started in California. It requires bird vaccination, salmonella testing and a minimum amount of floor space dedicated to each hen. Essentially each hen must be able to lie down, stand, turn around and spread their wings without brushing up against another bird. This label is quickly spreading across the country.
No added antibiotics means the hens haven't been given antibiotics in their feed or water. They were only given if the hens got sick and needed them.
Pasteurized eggs are heated to destroy bacteria. Then the eggs are coated in a food-grade wax to prevent contaminants from getting into the porous shell. Look for pasteurized eggs if you have recipes that include raw eggs in the finished product.
USDA Organic eggs are from hens that are given only organic feed. Their food has no animal by-products, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or chemical additives. There are no added antibiotics. The hens must also be at least free-range because they must be given access to the outdoors. This certification is one that has real legal backing.
These next nine things you can ignore, or avoid eggs that have them on their cartons.
Vegetarian-fed are from hens only given a diet of soy and corn. Because chickens naturally eat bugs, to guarantee vegetarian-fed, these birds wouldn't be given access to the outdoors. This is a controversial practice that doesn't appear to provide any benefit for the consumer while also degrading the life of the hen. There are also no inspections done to verify this claim before it's used on a label.
Hormone-free appears on many cartons, but egg-laying hens aren't given hormones. This is nothing more than marketing fluff.
Natural, all-natural or naturally raised are claims that are not regulated by the government, because they cannot be clearly defined. If you see that label on the carton, it's legally meaningless.
Farm fresh is another term with no legal definition. It only appears on labels to make you feel good.
Omega-3 enriched are from hens fed a diet rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. However, the source of those Omega-3's vary, so you might get them from hens that were fed fish oil, flax-seed or algae. That's a big problem for men, since the three anti-inflammatory and metabolically related fatty acids derived from fatty fish and fish-oil supplements – are associated with a 71 percent increased risk of high-grade prostate cancer. Get your Omega-3's from naturally occurring sources like nuts, seeds and fish.
Lower in saturated fat seems good. Egg companies found that what you feed a chicken affects what ends up in the egg. When hens are given diets low in saturated fat, the eggs have less saturated fat. A typical label says they have “25% Less Saturated Fat than Regular Eggs.” That seems like a lot, until you realize a regular egg has 1.6 grams of saturated fat while the 25% less fat eggs have 1 gram. You're saving just 0.6 grams.
If the prices were similar and that was the only difference, I'd recommend lower saturated fat eggs. However, most lower saturated fat eggs also have added vitamins and Omega-3 fatty acids, which may be bad for your health. (For more information on the dangers of vitamins in supplement form, read our article, “Multivitamins May do More Harm Than Good.”)
Nutrient-dense? There are plenty of claims on egg cartons that make you feel like they're a healthier food. But, the USDA won't allow egg companies to claim eggs are “healthy” or “nutritious” because of the amount of cholesterol found in the yolks. To get around that ban, the American Egg Board came up with the term “nutrient-dense.” It sounds healthyish, but there's no legal definition for the term “nutrient-dense.” It's just another meaningless marketing term.
Egg color doesn't matter. Despite what you may have heard, there are no inherent nutritional differences between brown and white eggs. Companies often do charge more for brown eggs, but that's only because people will pay more for them. Ignore color when making your choice.
Local or locally produced doesn't mean next door. The eggs must get to a processing facility that's less than 400 miles away. Also acceptable are eggs located in the same state as the processing facility. However, from the processing facility the eggs can be shipped anywhere, so it doesn't mean a whole lot.
Test your egg for freshness.
Fill a glass or bowl with water. Lower the egg into the water. The freshest eggs will sink to the bottom and lie on their side.
As eggs age, air makes its way into the shell, causing it to stand upright. The more air that gets in, the older the egg is. If your egg floats and doesn't touch the bottom of the glass or bowl, throw it out.
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