What are pastured eggs? What does that word even mean, and how do they differ from regular eggs?
Is it worth it for me to spend more money on different eggs, and if so, which ones? I had all of these questions too, and I'm here to break it down for you and finally provide some answers.
Pastured, for the most part, means the animal was allowed to live on a pasture for most of its life. In the case of chickens, "pasture" could mean a pasture, a meadow, fallow fields, or even woods.
Pastured eggs are laid by chickens that are raised on the green pasture - with access to sun, bugs, space, and fresh air. The chickens eat a natural omnivorous diet full of bugs, the way Mother Nature intended them to do.
If you've ever had pastured eggs, you'll know that the result in eggs is tremendous. You'll see deep yellow and even orange yolks from their greens-rich and varied diet, and the whites are clear and bouncy.
Compared to conventional eggs that you might purchase at the grocery store, where you'll notice the whites tend to be runny and the yolks are pale in comparison, often just barely a hint of yellow to them.
Before we dive into the different types of pastured eggs and buzzwords surrounding them, let's take a look at the outside first.
Egg shell colors
An interesting fact is that all eggs start out with white shells, no matter the breed of the hen.
A pigmentation process turns it a color later on, but at its earliest stage it was white — like a blank canvas.
Where does egg color come from, and how is it determined? Egg color depends on the breed of the chicken.
For example, White Leghorn chickens lay white-shelled eggs, while Plymouth Rocks and Rhode Island Reds lay brown-shelled eggs. Each of the different eggshell colors come from pigments the hens produce.
For eggs that are colors other than white, this change occurs during the third stage of the egg-laying process.
The hen applies a brown pigment to the eggshell -the pigmentation doesn’t pass through the shell though, as the inside of your eggshell stays white. Again, showing off that all eggs start with a white slate.
Breed, age and stress levels can also affect the color. For example, a young hen might lay darker eggs than a more mature hen.
There's also another indicator - the color of a hen’s ear area! A white or light spot means white eggs.
Usually, white hens lay white eggs, and brown hens lay brown eggs.
Brown chickens are usually larger and require more food to make an egg, which is why brown eggs may cost more than white eggs.
All eggs, no matter the color, are packed with protein and nutrients.
Pastured, free range, organic, cage free, oh my
As previously mentioned, pastured eggs are eggs raised on - you guessed it - pasture. They are mostly allowed to graze as they see fit for themselves.
Chickens don't naturally want to just eat grass. Despite how it looks when a chicken hits a meadow, they are not eating grass - they are primarily looking for seeds and insects.
They'll also eat the occasional small rodent or reptile thrown in if they can catch them!
Eggs raised on pasture typically have a bold yolk color like the one below, due the variation in their diet. Now that's a beautiful yolk!
Pastured chickens often receive a supplemental feed in the winter or during dry months.
This feed may or may not be certified organic (if the eggs are also labeled "organic" then the feed would need to be certified as such).
It’s important not to confuse pasture raised eggs with organic eggs, as they are entirely different things.
There are many pasture raised eggs that are not organic as they are fed conventional feed that was grown with pesticides or GMOs, so it's important to look for the USDA Certified Organic label no matter which type of eggs you choose.
Free range eggs
Free range eggs aren't necessarily the same as pastured eggs or organic eggs. The USDA requires that free range eggs come from chickens that have at least some access to a small, fenced patch of cement, which they may or may not use.
It doesn’t mean that the hens actually go outdoors, or that the outdoor space is more than a small, fenced-in area; it simply implies that a door exists that a farmer could at some point open.
Free range hens are also sometimes given antibiotics or other drugs.
To qualify as organic, eggs must come from chickens that are fed only organic feed (i.e., feed that is free of animal by-products, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or other chemical additives).
No hormones or other drugs can be used in organic egg production.
No genetically modified foods can be used. Additionally, organic eggs must come from chickens that are given antibiotics only in the event of an infection.
Commercial chickens, on the other hand, are given antibiotics on a routine basis.
Cage free eggs
On an egg carton, “cage free” means that the hens that laid the eggs were not raised in caged housing systems, which is how the vast majority of laying hens in the U.S. are housed.
In a caged housing system, each hen is typically given enough space to stand upright, but not enough space to turn around, move around, or stretch her wings.
The space given to each bird in a cage is typically less than the size of a sheet of paper. “Cage free” does not mean that the hens had access to the outdoors. Google "cage free hen house" and you'll see many images of exactly how crowded these ladies are.
Remember, there's two sides to every story. Cage-free facilities also can have more hen-on-hen violence and lower air quality than facilities that use cages, so it's not always a better option for the hens or the farmer.
What types of eggs to buy
You might feel more confused now than when you started. As with everything you consume, buy the highest quality you can afford to feed yourself. You only get one body; treat it well!
Overall, pastured animals tend to be raised on small farms and the farmers often sell at farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer methods or through co-ops.
It is usually easy to find out more about a specific farm that sells pastured meat or eggs since they are often rightfully proud of how they care for their animals.
Here in Charleston, SC, we purchase our eggs from Fili-West Farms, although there are a number of other farms that also sell eggs. If you can support a local farm, you're doing your community a service!
Brands like Pete and Gerry's and Nellie's both work with many small farms across the US that use humane practices and supply their eggs to the brand, so if you're in the grocery store, these are a great option as well.
Eggs are a great source of protein, and we enjoy ours frequently on top of avocado toast made with gluten free bread. How do you eat your eggs?