Eggs – A Buyers Guide

by Catherine Haug

(updated 6/11/2010 to add information on treatment of eggshells by commercial producers, and the harm that can result. See “Grocers’ Eggs. See also my 10/15/10 post: Report on Organic Eggs).

photo by Edd Blackler

Hens & Compost (Guerrant)

When you don’t have our own chickens, you have to buy your eggs. Many of us buy them at a grocery or supermarket, which is what I did until I found a friend who raises her laying hens on pasture.

Don’t you find it awfully confusing (at the store) when you have to choose between conventional eggs (nothing special on the carton), brown eggs, cage-free, free-range, organic, or nutrient enriched? Which of these is the best, nutritionally speaking? Which of these is the most humane in the treatment of the hens?

Here’s a guide from Better Homes and Gardens magazine, April 2010 issue, with commentary by yours truly.

Also, if you are interested in raising your own hens, see our Gathering Summary: Raising Chickens & Rabbits.

Egg Shell Color

Back in the 1960s, all those “in the know” were down on white and up on brown – anything (sugar, flour, toilet paper, eggs, etc.). But when it comes to eggs, the color of the shell (as laid by the hen) depends upon the breed of hen and not on the nutrition inside the egg. Some breeds lay white eggs; some lay brown, tan or cream; and others lay blue or aqua.

So pick the color you like best! However, there is one case where you will be sure to want a white shell:

If you have a garden and want to discourage those nasty white cabbage moths from laying eggs on your brassica leaves – eggs that turn into leaf-eating green caterpillars – you will want white egg shells. See my post: Natural Pest Control in the Garden for more detail on using egg shells to discourage this moth.

Local, pasture-raised hens’ eggs

Orange Yolks

Eggs with Orange Yolks

The advantages to this category are numerous, including: supports the local economy, provides the freshest and most nutritious eggs, and you can inspect the facility to assure yourself the hens are raised humanely.

Such eggs come from hens allowed to roam freely in an uncrowded pasture during the day. They can scratch and dig to their hearts’ content, eating weed seeds, bugs, maggots and worms. Then spend the night indoors, safe from predators and harsh weather. These hens are relatively stress-free, happy animals.

Their varied, omnivorous diet produces the best nutrition money can buy in an egg: high in vitamins A, D, E and some of the B family, and also high in the right Omega-3 fats so crucial to human health, as well as a source of good protein and lecithin. Such eggs have dark yellow-to-orange yolks.

In addition, their diet can be supplemented by commercial feed, but savvy keepers choose feed free of GMOs and chemical toxins.

Grocer’s Eggs

Note: an exception to the problems mentioned here would be eggs from locally-owned, health-conscious grocers who sell local eggs from pasture-raised hens. The following issues apply to commercially-produced eggs.

Hens’ diet: All eggs in this category, with few exceptions, come from hens fed a vegetarian grain or grain & seed feed. Good for vegetarians, but not so good for the hens, because chickens are omnivores. Their natural diet includes not only grains and seeds but also worms, insects, spiders and other tiny animals; not just for fun, but because they need them for optimal health.

And no matter what it says on the box, grocers eggs come from chickens with no or minimal access to pasture.

Eggshell treatment: I’ll bet you think that the eggshell is an impermeable wall that protects the interior of the egg from contamination. And you’d be right if the cuticle that surrounds the shell is not disturbed.

But commercial eggs are either washed with detergent, bleach or lye, all of which remove the protective cuticle thus allowing the inside of the egg to become contaminated. So, to ‘undo’ the harm done by removing the cuticle, egg producers coat the shell with mineral oil or vegetable oil.

The problem with this is that both these oils are absorbed through the porous eggshell (after the cuticle is removed), just as they are through human skin. And once into the blood, they can do damage. Mineral oil is a synthetic oil made from petroleum; commercial vegetable oils are made from GMO grains, and contain free radicals as a result of their processing. Both can do great harm once absorbed into the interior of the egg.

Far better for producers to simply rinse the egg with water, or dry-brush the shell, thus preserving the cuticle, until you clean the shell prior to cracking it open for use.

Time and Transportation: Commercially-produced eggs are often shipped from producer to a distant warehouse, and from that warehouse to a similarly distant store. This all takes time, which works against the freshness of the egg and the quality of its nutrients. And the transportation fuel pollutes the atmosphere.

Conventional Eggs

These are the least desirable of your choices because of the GMO factor. The hens are kept in an indoor cage system designed to promote efficiency. They are typically fed a diet of cheap, grain (likely GMO), which results in a high Omega-6 fat content, rather than a health-giving balance between Omega-6/Omega-3s.

The hens never get out in the sunshine, never get to dig up a maggot or pluck a caterpillar off a leaf. Their yolks are a pale yellow, which indicates they have minimal quantities of vitamins A and D.


These hens are raised indoors, with no access to outdoors. They are not kept in cages, but instead are kept on concrete floors, typically in highly crowded conditions so there is not much opportunity to roam.

Their feed is the same as for conventional eggs – likely GMO.

Because there is no access to sunshine nor digging for maggots, eggs from such hens are little better nutritionally than conventional eggs, with pale-yellow yolks.

They are little better from a humane aspect, unless their conditions are not overcrowded, as overcrowding results in high stress for the hens. They may pluck out all their feathers, and some hens peck others to death.

Nutrient Enriched

An example of this category is ‘EB’ eggs. The claim is that because the hens are fed a combination of seeds and grains, they have a higher level of certain nutrients such as Omega-3, folate and lutein than conventional eggs. However, unless they are ‘Organic,’ this feed is likely GMO.

And from a humane aspect, they can still be caged or kept in crowded indoor confinement with no access to outdoors or to roam.

Also, from a nutritional aspect, they aren’t that much better than conventional eggs. Their yolks are pale yellow indicating low levels of vitamins A and D, and they are not allowed to eat insects and worms which would otherwise give them a nutritional boost.

Lets discuss Omega-3 fats for a moment, since this is the selling point for these eggs. The most common of these fats are ALA, EPA and DHA. ALA is found in plants; EPA and DHA only in animals. Plant-eating animals have specific enzymes to convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but in the case of humans, many of us are very inefficient at this conversion. When we don’t get enough of these critical animal fats from our diet, inflammation and clogged arteries (among many other problems) can result.

Nutrient-enriched eggs are high in ALA, which comes from adding flax seeds to the hens’ diet. These eggs typically are not high in EPA and DHA. That benefit happens only when hens are allowed to dig for worms and insects, which is not possible when they are raised commercially in confinement.


These hens must be raised to Organic standards, which means their feed is raised organically to be free of GMO, pesticides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers.

But otherwise, the hens can be caged, or given only minimal access to the outdoors or opportunity to roam. Thus, from a humane aspect, and also from a nutrition aspect (with the exception of the GMO-factor), Organic eggs can be little better than conventional eggs.

And, like other commercially-produced eggs, their shells are treated to the same cleaning and coating with mineral or vegetable oils, which are absorbed through the shell (see above).

Free Range

This term has not been defined by the USDA, so its meaning is not consistent from one prooducer to the next. While it generally means the hens have access to the outdoors, there is no specification of duration or type of outdoor access they are given. In most cases, this is NOT the same as “raised in pasture.”

In other words, the hens may be let out of their cages to the outdoors for 5 minutes or 5 hours. Or it could be just an open window in their otherwise closed facility. And it could also mean that they are turned into a crowded, stress-inducing outdoor pen with little chance to dig for worms.

So you don’t know how humane this category is, just by the label “free range.” The only sure way to know is to crack open the egg to observe yolk color. If it’s pale yellow, the hen is roughly equivalent to a conventional caged hen. If it’s orange, the hen is given abundant access to dig and hunt in the outdoors.


My conclusion has been that commercial eggs, no matter what the label, are all nutritionally inferior to those from hens raised as pets in pasture by a friend or neighbor. The proof is in the pudding – or rather in the color of the yolk.

However, if you must buy commercial eggs, choose Organic, as they will at least be GMO-free. But don’t fool yourself that these hens are treated any more humanely than conventional hens. Nor that the overall nutritional quality of an organic egg is any better than a conventional egg.


Mother Earth News reported in 2008 about a study that compared eggs from conventionally-raised hens with those from pastured hens. The findings: eggs from pastured hens contain:

  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • 3-times more vitamin E
  • 4 – 6 times more vitamin D
  • 7 times more beta carotene

than their conventional equivalent. (from Mother Earth News: Eggciting News!!!)


Hens kept in confined, overcrowded conditions, are highly stressed (their keepers cut off their beaks so they won’t pluck out their feathers, out of stress). And stress causes the release of adrenaline into their bloodstream, resulting in eggs with high levels of adrenaline. Do you want your already over-active child eating adrenaline-laced food?

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