Revelation in a shell: Eggs are better when chickens live better

by Terry B on August 26, 2009

Treating chickens more humanely not only improves the flavor of their eggs, it improves their nutrition. But confusing labels make finding the best eggs tricky.

organic-egg

Okay, so this should probably not be so much revelatory as it is common sense. On the other hand, the way you get pearls is by irritating oysters. Still, in a world in which we are increasingly appalled by how industrial farming is abusing animals and our environment in the name of cheap food, chickens get the shortest end of the stick by far.

According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor, “Chickens are perhaps the least protected of farm animals. All farm animals are exempt from the federal Animal Welfare Act, but unlike other types of livestock, chickens are also exempt from individual state laws prohibiting cruelty to animals and from the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.” The Humane Society of the United States gives an equally grim assessment of conventional egg production in our country: “Arguably the most abused animals in all agribusiness, nearly 280 million laying hens in the United States are confined in barren, wire battery cages so restrictive the birds can’t even spread their wings. With no opportunity to engage in many of their natural behaviors, including nesting, dust bathing, perching, and foraging, these birds endure lives wrought with suffering.”

Guilt alone was enough to send me exploring alternatives when it came to buying eggs. But at the supermarket, I was met with two immediate obstacles. First, a baffling array of competing claims—natural, organic, cage free, free range, hormone free, antibiotic free, vegetarian diet…

Chef and writer Kelly Myers does a great job of thoroughly sorting this out in an article for the website Culinate, “Deconstructing egg carton labels.” The article tells you which terms mean something and which are industry fluff or outright misleading. But the short answer is this: Certified organic trumps everything else. According to Myers, “All organic eggs are certified by the USDA. Organic eggs come from hens whose feed is free of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and commercial fertilizers. Organic chicken feed contains no animal byproducts. The hens have never been given antibiotics. They are cage-free and have access to the outdoors.”

That said, there’s a new term popping up more and more. You probably won’t see it at the supermarket, but if you’re lucky enough to have a good farmers market, don’t be surprised to hear “pastured” or “pasture raised” being used to refer to egg-laying chickens. Pastured chickens range freely—or in large, movable pens to protect them from predators—feeding on bugs, grass, seed, fruit and such. You know, being chickens.

That’s how Illinois farmers Chris and Tania Cubberly raise their layers and produce eggs like the ones shown above that they sold me at the Logan Square Farmers Market. Their new farm, Tempel Farm Organics, isn’t certified organic yet—that’s a process that takes time for the land to heal from conventional farming methods. But they’re using all organic practices as they transition to certified organic over the next two years. They plan to be growing 50 different vegetables, cut flowers, pasture raised chicken and range fed eggs, all certified organic, in 2011.

Beyond the guilt: What’s in it for us?

Here’s where the revelation part kicks in. I bought my first dozen organic eggs at the supermarket, inspired by the aforementioned guilt. I felt good knowing the chickens were leading better lives, but wondered if we would notice a difference in the eggs. Did we ever.

First, the shells are sturdier—cracking them takes a little getting used to. Turns out battery-raised hens suffer calcium loss from stress and their egg shells are thinner. Once you get inside, the yolks are sturdier too. They sit up firm and high and are a deep, golden yellow. The big revelation, though, was the taste. They just tasted eggier—richer, more satisfying.

Ease my guilt and give me flavor and I’m sold. But wait, there’s more. According to an article in Mother Earth News, chickens who live better produce eggs that are healthier for us. In an independent study, they compared eggs “from 14 flocks around the country that range freely on pasture or are housed in moveable pens that are rotated frequently to maximize access to fresh pasture and protect the birds from predators” with the official egg nutrient data from the USDA for “conventional” eggs. The results? They found that eggs from hens raised on pasture may 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
  • 7 times more beta carotene

I mentioned two obstacles to buying better eggs earlier. The second is price. Having become accustomed to—spoiled by?—conventional eggs for under two bucks a dozen [and sometimes 99¢ a dozen when they're on sale], $4 to $5 or more a dozen for organic, humanely grown eggs was a bit of a sticker shock. But then I did the per meal math. More often than not, we eat a single egg if we’re having them for breakfast. When we do breakfast for dinner, it’s usually two eggs each. So the protein portion of the meal clocks in at less than a dollar per serving. Try to make a steak or a burger or a salmon fillet for that.

The bottom line for us is that it’s not too high a price to pay, for the chickens or for us.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Alta August 26, 2009 at 12:29 pm

I have been a convert of pastured eggs for almost a year now. There is a farm on my way home from work (I know, how lucky am I?) that raises laying chickens (and alpacas and sheep for fiber). I get my eggs from that farm. I’ve once or twice had to get eggs from the grocery, and even buying the best eggs they have to offer, it doesn’t measure up. The fresh, pastured eggs are simply better – more “eggy”, the yolks are so much firmer. So worth it.

Laura August 26, 2009 at 3:12 pm

I have been buying my eggs from Knoll Crest Farms, who come to the Union Square Greenmarket to sell, for a while now. The color and taste is really markedly better than the supermarket alternative I think. And agreed, $4 is double what they are in the supermarket, but I did the same math you did, and although on a percentage basis the difference is large, on an absolute basis it is pretty minimal. My parents came to town a while ago and my mom splurged for me on a very fancy dozen eggs for $8 at the market. The price was astronomical but I swear I’ve never had eggs like that in my entire life. The yolks were quite literally orange and just so rich and delicious I could hardly stand it.

Cathy-wheresmydamnanswer August 26, 2009 at 4:55 pm

Great article and timing as we are making the switch now to organic and all natural. From the Pantry to the fridge to cleaning supplies we are finally do what I should have done a long time ago! Even though it is more expensive my feeling is pay now or pay later.. I am willing to invest in my family’s health now so that hopefully we are not paying medical bills later.

Terry B August 26, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Alta—All the animal treatment and flavor issues aside, there is something just wonderfully cool about buying your eggs from an actual farm. You are indeed lucky.

Laura—The whole greenmarket phenomenon in New York is amazing. And I’m glad to see Chicago is catching up—our neighborhood farmers market just keeps growing. And while big cities don’t at first seem like they’d be likely places to buy food produced on small, sustainable farms, it’s the critical mass of urban centers that creates a big enough market to make such endeavors economically feasible.

Thanks, Cathy-wheresmydamnanswer! We’re moving in that direction, but I think we’ll probably end up achieving what feels like a good balance for us in terms of natural/organic/sustainable and conventional products.

Ronnie Ann August 26, 2009 at 7:35 pm

Thanks for the great egg-demystifying article, Terry. I’ve been reaching for organic eggs for quite a while, but now feel even less tempted to grab one of those cheaper alternatives. I was raised next to chickens and never liked the nasty critters, but now I will simply chalk it up to their not having been raised with love – before being eaten..

Chip August 27, 2009 at 1:59 am

As a kid, we raised chickens for our own use; about fifty of them. It was my job to collect the eggs, clean them and put them in the basket on the counter (our eggs were never refrigerated). I’m glad that now that I live away from the farm I can still get a good egg! We serve free range, vegetarian/bug fed chicken eggs at the cafe, too.

I learned a LOT about chickens and their eggs in Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking.”

In fact, give me his book and any edition of The Joy of Cooking and I have all the resources I need to cook!

There I go digressing again!

altadenahiker August 27, 2009 at 4:15 pm

People all around my hood are raising their own chickens, and I usually get some eggs. Last month everyone seemed to have too many, and I was the recipient of 4 dozen. I scrambled to do something with them all.

Terry B August 27, 2009 at 4:43 pm

Thanks, Ronnie Ann. Being a city boy, I can’t say for sure that love would have made your chicken neighbors any more likable, but farm-raised chickens really do make for the best eggs.

Chip—Thanks for the tip on the McGee book. I just ordered it from the library. And you grew up collecting eggs? You were destined to open your cafe, weren’t you?

altadenahiker—You scrambled, eh? What is that, some kind of yolk? Regarding people raising their own chickens, there was a recent article in the business section of the New York Times, of all places, about people Keeping Their Eggs in Their Backyard Nests.

sweetbird August 27, 2009 at 6:48 pm

I’ve long been a convert to organic eggs – especially when I was able to buy pasture-raised eggs at my local farmer’s market for only $2.90 per dozen. Sadly I’ve since moved cross country and have so far found great difficulty in locating organic eggs. When I do, though, we go egg crazy for a few weeks.

It’s just not worth it to me to buy conventional eggs when I know what’s happening to the hens who provide them. Thank you so much for this wonderfully written and informative article. This is how the word gets out and movements get started!

Sean August 27, 2009 at 11:36 pm

Thank you for the great article. I started buying organic eggs about 6 months after I started cooking and now, I try to buy my eggs locally. The difference is shocking and almost instant: firmer and perkier yolks and the shells seem to be sturdier. Of course, they taste much better.

Start the revolution!

Chip August 28, 2009 at 1:08 am

Terry, I think McGee’s book will be a real treat for you. I could say so much about what I’ve learned reading that book but I’ll let you find out first hand. Great fodder for food writing!

It’s the food science book used by culinary schools. Which is why I bought it; I never went to culinary school and have done my best to educate myself.

Terry B August 28, 2009 at 1:12 am

sweetbird—In a pinch, certified organic eggs from the supermarket are still far superior to conventional eggs. And by buying them, we let supermarkets know we’ll pay more for better products.

Sean—I’m delighted to be finding so many readers already doing what I’ve so recently figured out, buying organic eggs and, when possible, getting from the farmer whose chickens laid them.

Looking forward to it, Chip! We get so wrapped up in the art of cooking sometimes that we forget that there is also science to just about everything we do.

jilly August 28, 2009 at 1:28 am

i totally agree with terry b. so many of us live in places (vail, co) where we can’t keep chickens, but buying the best, truly cage free, organic eggs at your supermarket sends a great message to the store.

great article. thanks.

louise August 28, 2009 at 4:39 am

Dear Terry,
thx so much for the consciousness raising on eggs (and of course chickens). We have been eating organic eggs for years, no contest. The greatest eggs we have ever eaten though were in Italy. The first time we cracked one open we were alarmed by the BRIGHT orange color. The taste bore no resemblance to even the best US organics. Each egg bears the tiny stamping of the name of exactly where and when is was laid. These eggs are not special in Italy. They are the average eggs one takes off the supermarket shelf. Eggs there are rarely sold by the dozen (let alone in packs of 18 or 24). It is the freshness of the egg, along with the happy free chicken (and quality fed and drug free life they lead) that makes the difference. I can’t help but feeling however, like my pal Ronnie, they get more love!

Amara August 28, 2009 at 8:51 am

Does that mean the green eggs come from green chickens?! ^-^ We’re lucky enough to live were we can have home grown eggs. We have six pet chickens who get to roam the garden eating bugs (read tomatoes) and laying almost half a dozen a day of lovely guilt free eggs. They lead a pretty happy life.

Stacey Johnson August 28, 2009 at 2:33 pm

[By the way, the brown shells just mean that the chicken has brown feathers; white-feathered chickens lay white eggs.]

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. There are white feathered chickens that lay brown eggs (White Orpingtons, for example) and there are plenty of variously colored chickens that lay brown eggs, not just brown feathered ones. It depends on the breed of the chicken, what color eggs they lay. Some even lay green or bluish eggs, and some are sorta pink. Otherwise, fantastic article. But then, I’m biased, as I raise my own chickens and enjoy their fantastic eggs on a regular basis. (We have happy dairy goats, too, and like the eggs of happy chickens, our goat milk tastes NOTHING like what you would buy in the supermarket.)

Terry B August 28, 2009 at 2:55 pm

Thanks, Jilly!

Louise—I find that our pal Ronnie is right about a lot of things. And you’ve just given me one more reason to visit Italy.

Amara—Only if the chickens are Irish.

Stacey Johnson—Boy, is my face red—and no, my mother didn’t have red feathers. This city boy got that bit of [mis]information from the otherwise fantastic article cited here by Kelly Myers. I’ll just go in and edit that now that both you and Amara have called me on it. Thanks!

Hillary September 1, 2009 at 8:31 pm

This is the first time I’ve visited your blog and I really enjoyed your post. I’ve had the same experience with buying cage-free eggs: firmer shells, more robust yolks, and better taste. I work for the Humane Society of the United States and our organization provides a listing of egg labels with a particular eye toward animal welfare concerns. You can check it out at http://www.hsus.org/farm/resources/pubs/animal_welfare_claims_on_egg_cartons.html.

Terry B September 1, 2009 at 8:52 pm

Welcome to Blue Kitchen, Hillary! And thanks for the link to your organization’s tips on decoding egg carton claims.

Michael Kelly October 17, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Organic eggs are certainly better than your plain jane, white grocery store eggs, but beware of “Big Organic”. And what is organic is not always good, and what is good is not always labeled as organic. The book “Omnivore’s Dilemma” is a brilliant book that shines some light on this.

The best eggs I can get are from a local farmstand near me. They obviously aren’t labeled “organic” but freshness and the life the chickens lead make the better than anything you can find in the supermarket. Thanks for the article! We shouldn’t be fooled by misleading carton labels.

Terry B October 17, 2009 at 2:54 pm

Thanks for writing, Michael. You’re absolutely right that the best option is local farmstands or farmers markets. And as I said above, the eggs we get from Tempel Farm Organics aren’t certified organic [yet], but they’re raised that way. Still, even big organic is better than no organic at all. Organic doesn’t say everything about how the chickens live, but it does certify, as I said above, that the “eggs come from hens whose feed is free of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and commercial fertilizers. Organic chicken feed contains no animal byproducts.” And that’s a start.

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