What Type of Eggs Should You Buy?

PHOTO: THINKSTOCK/SERGEYRYZHOV

In any grocery store you can spend anywhere from $1 to $4 on eggs. These protein-packed little guys used to be considered one of the most economical sources of high-quality protein, but more choices and production practices mean wider range of cost.  

Let’s begin with the basics. A typical large egg contains

  • 6 grams of high-quality protein
  • 147 milligrams of choline, a nutrient necessary for cell membranes and needed in larger quantities during pregnancy for infant memory development and function
  • 41 IU of vitamin D
  • 186 milligrams of dietary cholesterol

This is what you will get in a regular carton of eggs. But brands use trendy phrases these days to get your attention and imply a healthier product inside the shell — but is it really? Are omega-3-fortified or cage-free eggs superior to the regular ones? Is organic the way to go?  

Let’s unveil exactly what these words mean so that you can decide if they are what you should buy on your next trip to the store! 

Conventional Eggs

Inexpensive and readily available, these eggs were laid by hens usually housed in a very full hen house, often without seeing daylight. Although the hens may not be treated as well as others, the eggs are full of the nutrients outlined above and a great protein choice for breakfast, lunch, dinner or a snack.

Cage-Free Eggs

These are eggs laid by chickens who usually are housed in an open barn. The chickens may still have little space to roam, but they are not caged and are allowed perches and nest boxes to lay their eggs.

Healthier than conventional? Likely not, but you are supporting farming practices that give the birds a better quality of life.

Free-range Eggs

These eggs come from chickens who are able to roam free outside, sometimes under a shaded canopy. The time they spend outside is determined by the farm, but their ability to get more movement and fresh air is what makes these chickens unique. In addition to eating grains, these chickens forage for plants and insects for food.

Healthier than conventional? Probably not. In theory, this sounds good but there isn’t clear evidence that these eggs are better for you. Essentially, by choosing to purchase free-range, you are making a statement with your wallet that you support farmers who are creating more humane conditions for their birds.

Organic Eggs

Chickens are provided organic feed and do not receive vaccines or antibiotics. These chickens are raised cage-free or free-range — check the label to be sure. Because these farmers cannot use vaccines or antibiotics, careful measures are taken to maintain the chickens' health. For the feed to be certified USDA organic, the grain must be grown on land that has been void of pesticides and toxic chemicals for at least three years.

Healthier than conventional? Maybe. This study comparing organic, conventional and omega-3-fortified eggs shows that organic had slightly higher protein, potassium and copper levels, while the conventional contained higher magnesium and iron, and the omega-3 eggs contained higher manganese and calcium. Essentially, change the feed and the nutrition of the eggs changes as well, but it doesn’t necessarily make organic eggs better, just different in the amount of nutrients they supply the body.    

Pasture-raised Eggs

These birds roam free on maintained pasture land and eat the plants and bugs available to them. The USDA does not regulate this definition and therefore, no standards are established.

Healthier than conventional? Unknown. There are no standards, so research and recommendations could be faulty.

Vegetarian Eggs

These eggs come from chickens provided a solely vegetarian diet, void of any meat or fish byproducts. Hens are kept indoors and are not allowed to peck at any worms or bugs on the ground.

Healthier than conventional? This guarantees there are no animal byproducts or questionable ingredients in the hen feed. This may be important to someone following a vegetarian diet, but there is not clear evidence that these eggs are healthier for you.  

Pasteurized Eggs

These eggs have been heated to 140 degrees Fahrenheit for 3½ minutes, which completely kills any bacteria without cooking the egg. These eggs are ideal for pregnant women, children and those with compromised immune systems as the pasteurization process significantly reduces the risk of foodborne illness from salmonella. The chickens who lay these eggs do not necessarily experience any type of cage-free or free-range living conditions — pasteurization occurs after eggs reach the plant.

Healthier than conventional? Nutritionally the same as conventional eggs, but likely safer with lower risk of salmonella foodborne illness.

Brown Eggs

Unless otherwise noted on the carton, these eggs are simply conventional eggs. The color is determined by the breed of hen who lays it — brown eggs come from chickens with red feathers and red ear lobes.

Healthier than conventional? No nutritional differences.

Farmers Market Eggs

Each farmer determines how they raise and feed the hens. This is the perfect place to inquire about practices. Eggs purchased at the farmers market may or may not be less expensive than store brands. However, for safety purposes, ensure that the farmer washed and refrigerated the eggs within 36 hours to reduce risk of salmonella.

Healthier than conventional? This depends on the feed and farming practices. Talk with the farmer about these and ask if they conduct any nutrient analysis on their eggs.

Omega-3-fortified Eggs

The feed has been supplemented with an omega-3 fatty acid source like flax seed or fish to increase the quantity of omega-3 delivered by the egg. Nutrient analysis will differ by brand so read the Nutrition Facts Label. The hens may be raised conventionally or otherwise, but if the label does not imply a particular practice, expect conventional methods. According to the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, a conventional large egg has 51 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids.

Healthier than conventional? Most common brands found in grocery stores supply 160 to 225 milligrams omega-3 per egg. The Institute of Medicine recommends 1.1 to 1.6 grams of ALA (omega-3 fatty acids from plants) daily. Other institutions recommend additional sources of omega-3 fats, such as DHA and EPA, because it is unclear how much ALA is converted into DHA and EPA in the body. While fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel can supply substantially more EPA and DHA than omega-3 fortified eggs, this type of egg may be a good option for those who do not eat fish or other omega-3 plant sources like flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts.

The Bottom Line

If food cost is important to you, conventional eggs may be the perfect choice for your family. Reasons for choosing non-conventional eggs can range from concerns about farming practices to whether the other foods in your diet are providing enough needed nutrients. No matter the egg you choose, always know that you have a choice and you decide what you consume and how much.

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Jennifer Hunt
Jennifer Hunt, RDN, LD, is a nutrition communications dietitian whose joy and passion is to empower women to live healthy, balanced lives that are fulfilling and free of guilt and shame. She loves sharing real-life strategies to choosing nourishing foods, living on a budget and looking beyond the mirror. Read her blog, Healthy Inspiration and connect with her on Facebook.