Is Free-Range Better Than Cage-Free? What You Should Know Before Buying Eggs
As mindbodygreen readers, we're well-informed about how to lead a healthy and sustainable life. Perhaps you buy only organic produce, compost in your backyard, or exclusively use nontoxic, cruelty-free cleaning products.
You care about the environment just as much as you care about what you put into your body. You try to be an informed consumer, but do you really know what those labels on your eggs mean? Though you're likely familiar with the difference between an organic vs. GMO piece of fruit, most of us can't really articulate what a cage-free egg is versus one that's free-range or Certified Humane.
What really is the difference? Does it matter? And as a conscious consumer, what is the best choice for your own health, for the health of the planet, and for the health of the hens that created your eggs?
Let's start with cage-free eggs. Quite literally, they come from hens that were spared from living in small, cramped cages where they’re never able to fully spread their wings, stand up and stretch, or see the light of day. While this cage-free existence is a vast improvement upon the horrific conditions you will find in most facilities today, it's probably not the improvement many people assume.
Most of the country's gigantic egg producers are simply now building or retrofitting their facilities to be cage-free. The hens will live in floor-to-ceiling aviary systems with hundreds of thousands of birds in each enclosure, very little square footage per hen, and no access to the outdoors whatsoever.
Free-range hens differ from cage-free birds in that they are able to roam outside. They can stretch, run, dust bathe (a hen's way of staying clean), and peck at the grass for bugs and other things to eat.
Need an analogy to understand the weight of this? Think about how you feel during a long car ride or flight; your legs cramp up, you start to get antsy, and the air feels stale. Now imagine the euphoric feeling you get after exiting the car or plane, when you can finally stretch your limbs and take a big breath of fresh air. Do you see why free-range conditions are so important?
What to look for
Now that you know the basics of what to look for, let's take a deeper dive. Beyond looking for the "free-range" label, you should also ensure that your eggs carry the "Certified Humane" stamp, meaning that they meet the strict requirements set forth by the Humane Farm Animal Care Program. Beyond the ability to roam freely, this also includes requirements such as gently handling the hens to limit stress, ample space in their barns and pasture, and providing them fresh, pure water to drink.
Beyond that, you also want to look for brands that come from small family farms like Nellie's Free Range Eggs and not from massive egg factories as most cage-free eggs do. At Nellie's, the hens are treated with respect—the way farms used to operate before big agriculture and mass production became the norm.
Now that you know what to look for when you shop for eggs, you can feel comfortable knowing you are making the smartest decision for your health, for the animals, and for the planet. When shopping, make sure to look for free-range, Certified Humane eggs that come from small family farmers who truly love their hens.
As the folks at Nellie's would say, the secret to better eggs is to treat the hens like your friends.