Even before a global pandemic made everyday chores a little bit more complicated and confusing, the simple act of perusing the grocery store always had the potential to add little pockets of anxiety into my day. If you’re like me there are constant questions like:
- “do I buy brand A because it’s on sale or brand B because it’s local?” or
- “1%, 2%, or whole?” (I’m actually lactose intolerant so my internal dilemma is more like “soy, almond, or oat milk?”)
These questions can really weigh heavy on your mind when you’re already experiencing major decision fatigue. And then there’s the egg aisle. You have variations in size, color, amount, type of feed, amount of space, etc. And then there are such large discrepancies in price! How can a dozen over here cost little more than a dollar and a dozen over there cost almost $8? I guess a simple answer is: not all eggs are created equally. You have conventional, organic, cage-free, free-range, and pasture-raised. But what does all this mean and why does it matter?
Conventional: According to the United Egg Producers, over 90% of eggs in the US come from caged hens. These birds are confined to cages for the entirety of their egg-producing lives and are each given on average 67 square inches of room. They eat a diet of corn and soy. (They also tend to be subjected to painful body modifications in order to keep them contained in such small quarters but that’s a topic for another day.)
Cage-free: These hens are allowed less than 1 square foot of space to roam and are still confined to large buildings, usually unventilated warehouses or barns. They also are fed a diet of corn and soy.
Free-range: These hens have a little bit more room with a whopping 2 square feet to themselves. They’re also fed a corn and soy diet, with their food usually being supplied inside, so they don’t often venture outside to roam.
Pasture-raised: If a farmer is raising pasture-raised chickens that means he or she is providing each hen with 108 square feet to roam and explore. They eat what they find outside as well as a balanced supplemental feed. They have access to the outside, fresh air, sunlight, and space. These little honeys can come and go as they please and often live a life of low-stress. The American Pastured Poultry Producers Association requires that hens be moved regularly (about once every week or so) in order to mimic natural grazing patterns. This is beneficial for the bird as they’re getting access to fresh pasture (and bugs!) often and is also good for the land as the birds help tamp down on pests as well as slowly fertilize the land. This is in contrast to caged birds who have their feces pile up toxic levels, which then can pollute the land and water nearby. As I’m sure you can guess, pasture-raised is less economically efficient for the farmer as he or she can no longer stack hen cages on top of one another as conventional egg producers can. This need for extra time, space, and energy is often why pasture-raised eggs tend to be a bit pricier than conventional eggs.
So, why does investing in healthy chickens matter? For so many reasons! These include your health, the health of the animal, and the health of the land. First, corn and soy diets are unnatural for these birds and they cause the eggs they produce to be more pro-inflammatory when consumed. Additionally, the lack of natural habitat causes the hens to be in highly-stressed out, cortisol-rich states, passing high levels of stress-markers (like corticosterone) on to the eggs they produce. Pasture-raised eggs have also been found to be higher in vitamins A & E as well as Omega-3 fatty acids.
A note to keep in mind: as pasture-raised eggs have become more popular with consumers, large brands with large scale egg producers have been hopping on the bandwagon and cutting corners all while advertising their eggs as “pasture-raised” and charging you a greenwashing premium for them. These large scale producers construct permanent and confined chicken coops with large doors in the middle of a pasture. Because the permanent coops have doors that allow the chickens to roam, they’re allowed to be called pasture-raised. However, by keeping their feed inside and not rotating their hens, only a small percentage of ladies ever get a taste of the green ground. How can you know if the pasture-raised eggs you’re getting are the real deal? Talk to your farmer! Ask how often he or she rotates their pasture or how much space each hen actually gets. I’m sure they’d be happy to explain their process to you.