Sunny Side Up

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photo by Bryan Welch

Hens that are free to roam around a pasture chomping on grass and pecking at insects are no doubt happier than those cramped in metal cages eating cheap corn mixtures packed with additives. Based on that thought alone, so-called free-range eggs are popular among conscientious consumers. Now there’s mounting evidence that hens raised in natural environments produce eggs that are nutritionally superior to those of their caged peers.

Our sister publication Mother Earth News (Oct.-Nov. 2007) analyzed the eggs of 14 flocks raised on pasture and compared the results to nutritional data available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for commercial eggs, the sort found in most supermarkets. According to the article, “Meet Real Free-Range Eggs,” eggs from pastured hens may contain as much as:

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

You’d think evidence like this would make choosing pastured eggs a snap. The USDA, however, defines free-range so broadly that it’s difficult to ensure that you’re getting the nutritious eggs of truly pastured hens. According to the USDA labeling glossary, as long as hens are “allowed access to the outside,” producers can call their eggs free-range. Oftentimes, though, that only means a small opening where hens could go outside, regardless of whether or not they ever go. Terms such as pastured and farm-raised aren’t defined at all.

Until the FDA cracks down on unclear egg labeling, consumers need to do their own checking. Eggs from truly pastured hens often are found at farmers’ markets and local farm stands, where you can chat with farmers about the condition of their flocks. It’s also possible that a quick conversation with a grocery store manager about the nutritional benefits of truly free-range eggs might bring them to your local supermarket as well.

To read the complete study, go to

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