Most people who eat eggs have tasted the ones from a grocery store or marginal-quality café. But when was the last time you tasted an honest to goodness farm-fresh egg from a chicken whose life consisted of being idyllic and free – roaming the pasture foraging for natural food sources? If you have ever tasted a pasture-raised egg, you know that there is no comparison between that and store bought eggs in terms of flavor, texture, color, and shell hardness. It’s really a different food. And here’s why:
First of all, even if you’re indifferent to or have never tasted the difference between store eggs and farm eggs, it’s important to know that conditions regarding chicken care and quality of life vary wildly from source to source. I will refrain from detailing the worst of it, but standard commercial practices such as cutting off chicken’s beaks, cramming four or five sick hens into cages about 20 square inches in size for the entirety of their lives, the generally unhygienic conditions that have led to rampant disease, and the ways commercial egg producers dispatch roosters are both inhumane for chickens and unhealthy for consumers. With commercial eggs comprising 95-98% of all eggs found in grocery stores, I encourage all of you to research for yourselves the conditions that most of these hens endure. And research is backing up what small egg farmers have long known. The health of the hen determines the health of the eggs she lays.
Now, I am not a vegetarian. I eat meat as a regular part of my diet. But, I also feel a deep connection to the food I eat, and I have deep gratitude for any living thing that gave its life to be my sustenance (yes, including plants). I cannot even kill a bug without first weighing whether it presents a health danger to my family, and even then I often say a prayer for its return to The Creator. With that said, I cannot in good conscience support an industry that treats even an animal that is raised to be a food source in a cruel and horrifying way. But, I’m sort of going off on a tangent here. Back to eggs…
There are a few key terms that anyone buying eggs with a bent toward conscientious shopping should know. These are the most commonly used phrases you will see when purchasing a box of eggs in the store:
All Natural – This is a loose term that really has no relation to how the hens were treated or the eggs were classified. It is a term used by egg producers in any way they see fit, as the USDA considers all eggs inside a shell to be “natural.”
Cage-Free – This means that the hens were not kept in the miniscule cages mentioned above. However, these hens usually never see natural sunlight or the outdoors and are, instead, raised solely inside a barn.
Free-Range – This is one of the most misleading terms, in my opinion. “Free-range” does mean that chickens are able to roam about, as in the case of cage-free chickens. But the term “free range” sounds as though birds are able to go outside and forage for food in a natural environment. However, this term simply means that the hens have “some access” to the outdoors, which may consist of a small, wire-covered porch or the like. Often, “free-range” hens never set foot outdoors in the grass where they could forage naturally or benefit from clean air and natural sunlight.
Organic – To be certified “organic,” eggs have to come from hens fed only organic feed and can never be given antibiotics. However, the hens only have to have “some access” to the outdoors and may, like “free-range” chickens, spend all of their lives in barns and pens.
Pasture-Raised (sometimes called “Grass-Fed”) – This is by far a different method for raising quality, fresh eggs than any of the other methods. And it’s the one we use here at Two Clay Birds Farm. Pasture-raised eggs are from hens who live in an open pasture during the day and eat natural food sources, which for chickens ranges from seeds to grasses to insects and kitchen scraps. Our gals are particularly fond of fresh-from-the-field watermelon, oatmeal, raisins, and farm-raised cantaloupes. They even love bananas! We leave the door to our chicken coop open all day so that hens can access nesting boxes, and particular hens have their favorite spots that they return to day after day. The only times we close the door to the coop are if we have tiny baby chickens running around in there to get some exercise and at night when all of the hens and roosters come running in in single file to get in the door on their own accord. They like the safety of the coop at night. Our hens are never given antibiotics – although they do receive oregano oil in their water for maintained good health from time to time. (If you read my last blog entitled Snake Oils, Herbs, and Other Tools for Healing, you know that oregano is a powerful anti-bacterial and anti-viral herb.) They receive daylight all day and have room to fly around the farm and even onto the front porch. We have not applied for an “organic” certification from the USDA, because we know that our methods of responsible flock management and of giving our chickens a natural environment far exceed the guidelines set forth by the USDA.
So, we know that the various methods of egg production have vastly different outcomes for the quality of life of the chickens, but how does that quality of life translate to the nutrition contained within the egg itself? Numerous studies have concluded that the ways in which a hen is raised and fed have incredible implications on the quality of the eggs we eat and their contribution to our health as a vital food source. Consider a 2010 Penn State University study in which the lead researcher, Heather Karsten, Associate Professor of Crop Production Ecology, remarked, “Compared to eggs of the commercial hens, eggs from pastured hens eggs had twice as much vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fats, more than double the total omega-3 fatty acids, and less than half the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Vitamin A concentration was 38 percent higher in the pastured hens’ eggs than in the commercial hens’ eggs…” The study was a comparison of eggs of pastured-raised hens to those of hens fed a commercial diet. (Not to beat a dead horse – er, chicken – but, again, if you read my last blog entitled Snake Oils, Herbs, and Other Tools for Healing, you remember that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for a wide and far-reaching array of health conditions.) Further, a 2007 research project by Mother Earth News Magazine compared the USDA’s own data regarding eggs that were from pasture-raised hens, versus those from commercial egg factories. The results? The USDA reported that pasture-raised eggs on average contained 66% more vitamin A, 300% the vitamin E, and 700% more beta carotene. Combine that with the fact that eggs are considered a complete protein because they contain all nine essential amino acids, and you have what some might describe as a superfood. The iron, B12, folate and choline found in eggs have numerous health benefits which may include the prevention of birth defects, the prevention of certain degenerative eye conditions, as well as the promotion of healthy brain development and function. And, contrary to what was previously believed, eggs are not a threat to coronary health. In fact, The American Heart Association, now states that lutein found in egg yolks actually protects against the progress of early heart disease. So, don’t go for just the whites; enjoy the whole egg!
If you love eggs scrambled, fried, hard-boiled, in a quiche at your favorite bakery, or just as an ingredient in a birthday cake, it’s hard to escape their value as a food source and their versatility as a constituent of many of our most loved recipes. In a nutshell – or an eggshell, as the case may be – well-loved chickens who are given natural living conditions and natural food conditions are not only happier but produce more nutrient-rich eggs.