Buying eggs can be confusing. What’s the difference between organic, cage-free and all-natural besides price? Does color or grade really matter? A rundown on egg terms and classifications:
• Grade: U.S. Department of Agriculture seals signify that eggs have been voluntarily inspected and graded according to how the yolk and white stand up to cooking. Eggs are ordered by decreasing quality, from top grade AA to A, the middle grade for most eggs sold. All ungraded eggs sold to consumers are labeled B.
• Size: The weight of an egg determines its size. Choose large eggs for baking cakes. Different sizes may scramble the outcome.
• Color: Whether white or brown, color comes from the hen’s breed. In general, hens with white feathers and white earlobes lay white eggs, and hens with darker feathers and red earlobes lay brown eggs. There’s no difference in flavor or nutrition.
• Organic: This is the only classification with clear, enforceable federal standards. Eggs with an organic seal must pass inspections by the USDA.
Other labels are only guidelines and imply – but do not necessarily deliver – safer, more healthful food. For organic, hens must be given feed with no animal byproducts or genetically modified crops. They must be produced on land that has been free from the use of toxic and persistent chemical pesticides and fertilizers for a minimum of three years. The hens themselves must be maintained without hormones and other intrusive drugs, and antibiotics may be used only in cases of outbreak of disease. The hens also are kept in a cage-free environment and allowed access to the outdoors.
• Cage-free: There is no legal description, but cage-free generally means the birds are not raised in traditional cages. The classification, however, does not guarantee that birds are raised outdoors, or that they are running free. Typically, the birds are maintained on the floor of a poultry house or barn, and they may or may not have access to outdoor pens.
• Free-range: A category for hens that graze or roam outdoors. Typically, a rancher may employ a combination of barn and outdoor pens. The hens can go outdoors in the daytime, but are typically housed at night for protection from the elements and predators.
• Nutrient-enhanced: These eggs have higher levels of an omega-3 fatty acid, vitamin E or lutein. The higher levels are reached by adding flax, marine algae or fish oils to the feed.
• Certified humane: These are eggs from hens in the Humane Farm Animal Care, a non-profit group devoted to improving the lives of farm animals. Hens must be cage-free. Additional housing and nesting guidelines allow for natural behaviors.
• Vegetarian: Eggs from hens fed a plant-based diet, with no animal by-products in the feed.