Deciphering Egg Labels: Where to Find the Best Eggs

While many doctors still warn their patients about the dangers of too many eggs and high cholesterol, we now know that there are different forms of cholesterol and that eggs are not as bad as previously thought. (1)(2)

Cage-Free or Free-Range

Roughly 95% of eggs produced in the US come from caged hens.

“Cage-free” and “free-range” are largely unregulated labels that are used to bolster sales in the egg industry.

Free-range hens may have access to the outdoors. However, the quality of the time spent outdoors is left poorly defined.

Cage-free hens do not necessarily have access to daylight or the outdoors.

With over 90 billion eggs produced each year in the United States, and close to 70 billion going into the mouths of Americans, it may come as a surprise that roughly 95% of these eggs come from caged hens. (3)(4)

Egg labels like “cage-free” and “free-range” are largely unregulated. While free-range hens may have access to the outdoors, the quality of time spent is questionable; cage-free hens aren’t guaranteed to see daylight.

According to the Humane Society, caged hens live in approximately 67 square inches of space. A tight cage can yield unhappy and unhealthy hens. This is why in 2008 voters in California passed Proposition 2, which bans caging systems by 2015.

While studies suggest that this may eliminate egg production in the state of California, it may also prompt more of us to investigate backyard chicken coops. Even city-dwellers can benefit from freshly laid eggs plucked from the backyard coop. (5)

Is Vegetarian Fed Dangerous?

When you see a happy hen peck and scratch at the soil, it’s not just looking for plant matter.

Chickens are omnivores. Besides insects, they will seek out small animals, such as lizards and baby mice.

This is one reason why almost all hens are subject to beak trimming.

Whether your eggs come from caged hens or free-range hens, if they are raised on vegetarian feed, they are nutrient deficient and hungry. Given the opportunity, these hens will resort to cannibalism.

Laying hens from farms that are Animal Welfare Approved are the only hens not permitted to receive beak trimming. (6)

It turns out that the nutrients stored in an egg from a caged hen literally pale in comparison to those found in an egg that comes from a well-nourished hen.

A properly fed hen produces a yolk that has more fat-soluble vitamins and omega-3 fats than a hen raised on conventional feed. (7)

Even with access to the outdoors, a hen will eat the available chicken feed first, before scratching for insects.

If you observe the supermarket, health food stores, and even independent vendors at farmer’s markets, you will find advertisements boasting that their hens are fed a 100% vegetarian diet.

Frequently, this means 100% soy.

Because so many of us still associate “vegetarian” with healthy, we assume that when hens are fed a vegetarian diet, they must produce a more nutritious egg.

In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

When it comes to soy, there has been a great debate around its benefits and its risks.

Besides the fact that many people have a dietary sensitivity to soy, it has been discovered that certain compounds in soy mimic estrogen. These estrogen-like molecules found in plants are called phytoestrogens.

When phytoestrogens occupy receptors that are designed for human estrogen, this can lead to problems. While some studies have found that phytoestrogens are close enough to the real thing, other studies indicate these outside estrogens can lead to problems – including cancer. (8)(9)

We now know that when a hen eats soy, these phytoestrogens are deposited in the organs of the hen and transferred into her eggs. (10)

When Shopping for Eggs, Know Your Farmer

A nutrient-dense diet produces a nutrient-dense egg.

If a backyard chicken coop is out of the question, the best way to find nutrient-dense eggs is to look for hens that are healthy and happy.

Some farmers offer fishmeal to their hens. This is an excellent way to supplement a healthy hen’s diet. If you have hens in your backyard, be sure and feed them your kitchen scraps, which includes large meaty bones and fish heads.

What To Remember Most About This Article:

Popular labels like “cage-free” and “free-range” are often used to market eggs and boost sales, although the labels are largely unregulated. In actuality, 95% of the 90 billion eggs produced annually in the US come from caged hens.

Although many customers may be attracted to eggs advertised as vegetarian fed, these eggs come from hens that are severely nutrient deficient. Chickens are omnivores that need more than just plant matter in a well-rounded diet.

When a hen is well fed, it will produce a nutritious yolk full of fat-soluble vitamins and omega-3 fats. However, a hen fed a vegetarian diet with 100% soy feed will transfer potentially dangerous phytoestrogens into her eggs that have been linked with cancer, in some cases.

For the best results, consider a backyard chicken coop for the healthiest, freshest eggs available. Otherwise, get to know your farmer to find out what a hen is fed so that you can enjoy nutrient-dense eggs produced from chickens that are healthy and happy.


  1. Fernandez ML. Dietary cholesterol provided by eggs and plasma lipoproteins in healthy populations. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2006; 9(1): 8-12.
  2. KL Herron, et al. High intake of cholesterol results in less atherogenic low-density lipoprotein particles in men and women independent of response classification. Metabolism. 2004 Jun; 53 (6): 823 – 30.
  3. USDA Economic Research Service. Poultry and Eggs: Background. 28 May 2012. http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/animal-products/poultry-eggs/background.aspx
  4. Impacts of Banning Cage Egg Production In the United States: A report prepared for United Egg Producers. Promar International. Aug 2009.
  5. Foreman, Patricia L. City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-reyclers, and Local Food Producers. Good Earth Publications, 2010.
  6. http://www.animalwelfareapproved.org/standards/layinghens-2012/
  7. C Long, et al. Meet Real Free-Range Eggs. Mother Earth News. Oct / Nov 2007.
  8. Messina MJ, Loprinzi CL: Soy for breast cancer survivors: a critical review of the literature. J Nutr 2001, 131:3095S-108S.
  9. JM McLaughlin, et al. Effects of tomato- and soy-rich diets on the IGF-I hormonal network: a crossover study of postmenopausal women at high risk for breast cancer. Cancer Prev Res (Phila). 2011 May;4(5):702-10. Epub 2011 Mar 23.
  10. G Vargas, et al. Quantification of Soy Isoflavones in Commercial Eggs and Their Transfer from Poultry Feed into Eggs and Tissues. Ohio State Univ. 2009.
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