Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Egg Labeling and Nutrition (or…what does “Free Range” have to do with my cholesterol?)

Some, but not all, labels mean something. But what, exactly, do they mean?

*If you only remember one thing from this article…Egg labels are NOT required by the U.S. government. Many labels are NOT regulated either.*

We have already talked about how egg classifications of size, grade and class are mandated by government regulation and that the color of an egg is a function of the breed of the layer hen (see the February blog post). You might remember that these classifications relate to egg quality—not nutrition. But how’s that again? Are these things really separate? My answer is no, the quality of an egg should take into consideration its nutritional value. Some egg producers are trying to provide such information through different types of labels, but much of it is confusing, at best, misleading, at worst.

Some labels are like a list of
 ingredients in your egg...

Now, let’s look at some of the other information you can get from a box of eggs. It turns out that, if you can decode the background secret lingo, the label on your egg carton can tell you A LOT about the cholesterol count, fat content and other really valuable nutritional data. In fact, despite government failure to recognize the superior nutritional value of truly pastured organic eggs, we find that government regulations surrounding these types of labels mean that these eggs MUST be nutritionally superior. Make sense? Read on to find out what this secret language is all about…

Egg labeling (natural, organic, free range, fertile, etc.) is big business in this country. First, let’s be clear, unlike processing information (size, grade, class), information labels identifying agricultural methods are purely voluntary and are not required in any way by law. Second, it is important to note that because these labels are not required by law, we must understand that some are not regulated by law. Frankly, I think that all of this is unreasonably complicated for the consumer to figure out—trust me when I say that this is on purpose. I hope that I can help to make it more simple, but I’m not promising.

Some lables seem to say good things...
but do these words actually mean anything?
Generally speaking, there are two main concerns for us egg label readers: (1) animal welfare—what do the labels say about how the animals are treated or whether they are treated humanely (2) nutrition—what does the label tell us about the nutritional value of the eggs within. While you may not think you care whether a chicken has a good home, or you might be convinced that animal rights trump nutrition, we should all be very concerned about both. The way in which a chicken is raised has a tremendous impact on the quality of her eggs, these issues are intertwined and cannot be separated. There is very little (but there is some!) scientific data proving the variation in nutritional value between conventional and pasture raised hens, but there are other government data points that do tell us the story if we are willing to wade through data and navigate the sticky tangle of double speak. After all, regulations governing mandated class, grade and size identification of eggs specifically addresses environmental and feed causes for inferior quality eggs.

Let’s start from the beginning. The chart below identifies the most common labels found on egg cartons and identifies scientifically proven nutritional information for each type. (In this case, “proven” data is either provided by the USDA or is according to data from Mother Earth News, the only major source that I can find that has conducted nutritional analyses in a lab and published those results for general use). Many of us are generally aware of the information below, but be sure to read on and we will follow the connection of egg labels with egg quality with egg classifying and egg nutrition.

Most eggs (somewhere between 68 and 90 percent, depending on where you get your numbers) sold in the United States come from Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). CAFO eggs are described here as “Conventional Eggs (CE)”, although you will not likely see egg cartons labeled that way (remember, labels are optional!). CAFOs are also known as Industrial Farms, Factory Farms and Confined Farms. You can be certain that CAFOs use Genetically Modified (GM) feed. Because this is, by far, the largest category, I am using this group as the control and base measure for Conventional Eggs. At the other end of the nutritional spectrum are “Pastured Eggs (PE)”. So here goes…First, the key:

CE” —Nutritional Value Conventional (CAFO) Eggs (USDA nutrition database)
PE” —Nutritional Value Pastured Eggs (Mother Earth News)
One “large” (50 g.) egg my contain antibiotics, GM feed is allowed. One large egg is a good source of protein, essential amino acids and vitamins and minerals, including:

·   Vitamin A
·   Riboflavin (vitamin B2)
·   Folic acid (vitamin B9)
·   Vitamin B6
·   Vitamin B12
·   Vitamin D (one of few food sources that do)
·   Choline
·   Iron
·   Calcium
·   Phosphorus
·   Potassium.
·   Approximately 72 calories, 186 mg of cholesterol.

One “large” truly pastured egg contains the same protein, essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals, with the following additions and exceptions:
·     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
·     7 times more beta carotene
·     No antibiotics, ever (whether in the layer hen, into the egg shell, or as an additive to feed)
·     No GM feed
·     Subject to third party verification (or, better yet, you know your farmer and can see their practices yourself!)
·     Allowed to forage, remember, chickens are omnivores!

Now use the above key to navigate the Egg Label Chart below:

Egg Label
What it means…
Nutritional Value (CE or PE)
·  Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO)
·  Few feed restrictions, generally fed with GM products.
·  Legal to irradiate and administer antibiotics through the chicken feed or into unhatched eggs.
CE. These eggs are at the bottom of the nutritional scale.
Certified Organic
·  Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
·  Birds are not caged inside barns or warehouses.
·  Required to have outdoor access BUT amount, duration and quality of outdoor access is undefined.
·  Fed organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides. Feed does not contain GM ingredients.
·  Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted.
(Source: Humane Society)
CE upgrade. Certified Organic eggs are a good thing if the producer is following the spirit of organic farming. These eggs do not contain antibiotics however the eggs may not achieve full nutritional value because the hens may or may not be foraging.
·  Should be the same as Certified Organic, however…
·  No compliance verification.
·  Not all small farms can afford certification fees.
Possible CE upgrade—see Certified Organic. Valid only if you know your farmer and how they raise their chickens.

Free Range/Cage Free/Free Run/Free Roaming
·  No USDA standards in "free-range" egg production.
·  Note that Cage Free does not require outdoor access. There is no third-party auditing.
·  Typically, free-range hens are not caged inside barns or warehouses and have some degree of outdoor access, but there are no requirements for the amount, duration or quality of outdoor access.
·  No restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed.
·  Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted.
(Source: Humane Society)
Undetermined—know your farmer. PE if the hens are truly free range (hens living outdoors, foraging on grass and insects, can be fenced or penned if they are moved to fresh pasture periodically). CE if egg producer does not follow the “spirit” of the law.
Certified Humane
·  Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care.
·  Birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses but may be kept indoors at all times.
·  Must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing.
·  Requirements for stocking density and number of perches and nesting boxes.
·  Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed.
(Source: Humane Society)
CE upgrade/Possible PE. Humane treatment leads to less stress, which leads to higher quality egg production. However, if the hens are kept indoors at all time their eggs will not achieve full nutritional potential.
Animal Welfare Approved
·  Highest animal welfare standards of any third-party auditing program. Animal Welfare Approved is a program of the Animal Welfare Institute.
·  Currently, no participating producers that sell to supermarkets.
·  Birds are cage-free and continuous outdoor perching access is required.
·  Must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing.
·  Requirements for stocking density, perching, space and nesting boxes. Birds must be allowed to molt naturally.
·  Beak cutting is prohibited.
 (Source Humane Society)
PE. This is the highest standard of egg production. Ask your farmer if they practice these techniques, you can be your own advocate. Then spread the word about your great egg farmer, then you can be an advocate for good farming practices too!
American Humane Certified
·  Allows both cage confinement and cage-free systems. Animals in "furnished cages" have about the space of a legal-sized sheet of paper.
·  Detrimental to animal welfare, opposed by nearly every major US and EU animal welfare group.
·  Forced molting through starvation is prohibited.
·  Beak cutting is allowed.
·  Compliance verified through third-party auditing.
·  Program of American Humane Association.
(Source Humane Society)
Probable CE. The American Humane Association states that their standards are based on scientific research. I looked through their site and could not find a list of what their standards actually are (except that there seems to be 200 of them, whatever that means).
Food Alliance Certified
·  Birds are cage-free, access to outdoors or natural daylight is required.
·  Must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing.
·  Specific requirements for stocking density, perching, space and nesting boxes.
·  Starvation-based molting is prohibited.
·  Beak cutting is allowed.
·  Compliance verified through third-party auditing.
·  Food Alliance Certified is a program of the Food Alliance.
(Source Humane Society)
PE. This is a very high standard of egg production. Ask your farmer if they practice these techniques, you can be your own advocate. Then spread the word about your great egg farmer, then you can be an advocate for good farming practices too!
United Egg Producers Certified
·  Overwhelming majority of the U.S. egg industry complies with this voluntary program.
·  Permits routine cruel and inhumane factory farm practices.
·  Hens have 67 square inches of cage space per bird (less area than a sheet of paper).
·  Hens are confined in restrictive, barren battery cages and cannot perform many of their natural behaviors, including perching, nesting, foraging or even spreading their wings.
·  Compliance verified through third-party auditing.
·  Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed.
·  Program of the United Egg Producers.
(Source Humane Society)
CE. Run away from these eggs!
Vegetarian Fed
·  Feed does not contain animal byproducts.
·  Not necessarily relevant to the animal’s living conditions.
(Source Humane Society)
Insignificant. Chickens are omnivores and their diet should include insects. Eating a varied diet greatly increases the nutritional value of the egg.
·  This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare or living conditions.
(Source Humane Society)
·  Eggs laid by hens that live with roosters.
·  Hens most likely were not caged.
(Source Humane Society)

Likely CE Upgrade, possible PE. Hens do not need roosters to lay eggs, farmers generally keep roosters to help gather the hens and fertilize eggs. It is unlikely that a farmer would keep a rooster with hens if the hens are caged, but this label is not a certain indicator.
·  This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare.
(Source Humane Society)
Minor CE Upgrade. Feed contains ether fish oil or flaxseed, thereby increasing Omega-3 content in the egg. These eggs are unregulated. Generally speaking, PEs are naturally higher in omegas than CEs.
·  Not relevant to animal welfare standards.
·  “Local” is defined by the distributor.
Undetermined.  Look for the name and address of the farm on the label, look it up, does the distance meet your standard for “local”? Your “local” egg producer could be as conventional as another that is far away. However, if it really is local, the benefit here is that you can go check it out and see for yourself!
No Hormones
·  Not relevant to animal welfare standards.
·  The use of hormones is prohibited for poultry—totally irrelevant.
No Antibiotics
·  Not relevant to animal welfare standards.
·  *May or may not indicate antibiotic use in unhatched layer eggs.*
·  Look for this label in conjunction with Certified Organic
Be careful with the wording on this one! Some large scale producers inject antibiotics into their unhatched layer eggs and are then able to label their eggs “not raised with antibiotics”. This generally causes a competitive stir in the big egg producer world, so watch for these battles of the labels!
Barn Laid
·  Hens live in large barns and are usually divided up into large pens.
·  Birds can socialize, stretch their wings, walk around, dust-bathe, perch and scratch around for food.
·  Beak trimming is permitted.
·  Feed may or may not be organic.

CE upgrade. These eggs will not achieve full nutritional value because the hens are not foraging outside. However they are likely to experience less stress than typical CE birds and have better living conditions than CAFO birds.
No Artificial Colors
Irrelevant—not permitted under federal law
None. Note, some egg producers will add “not artificial” coloring agents (such as marigold petals) to feed to make the egg yolks more yellow. Truly yellow eggs yolks come from foraging, not processed petals.

Yes, it’s a long and sort of complicated chart—hey, nobody promised buying eggs would be easy! The USDA likes to shimmy around the issue regarding whether CAFO eggs are more or less nutritious than PE eggs. But we’re not the USDA, we are the consumer and we can use our common sense and remember the old adage… “we are what we eat” (or “we are what the chickens eat”). This holds true for chickens and their eggs—the higher their quality of life, the less stress they live under, the more variety in their diet, the more room they have to wander and forage, the more nutritious the egg.

I’ve found several sources for the following quote (I’ll leave it to the reader to decide who is the original author—just note, it’s not me), but I think it’s  good one worth repeating:

“Unfortunately, meat, dairy, or eggs coming from CAFOs in North America are not required by law to be labeled as such. Greenwashing CAFO products as "natural" or "local" is a major source of profits for Wal-Mart, Cargill, Conagra, Perdue, Land O' Lakes, Kraft, McDonalds, KFC, Monsanto and chemical/GMO farmers and ranchers. Organic consumers, farmers, and retailers need to educate the public about the hazards of factory farms and CAFOs.”

If you eat eggs, all I can say is, know where they come from. Old fashioned farm eggs from pastured hens are a nutritious and delicious whole food. The imposters? Not so much.

Wikipedia, eggs