Organic, Pastured, Free-Range: Which Type Of Egg Is Actually Healthiest?

Photo by Dejan Beokovic

Maybe you've been here: standing in front of the egg display at your local grocery store, wondering what all the different labels mean and which choice is best? I've certainly been in that situation myself, and I'm a registered dietitian!

Tell me if this sounds familiar: Should I buy organic? What's the difference between cage-free and pasture-raised? Does it mean anything if the eggs are brown instead of white? What's up with omega-3 eggs?

I remember one shopping trip in particular, right after finding out a family member had been diagnosed with cancer, and despite my years of clinical training, my head was a soup of fear-mongering clickbait and well-intentioned advice. After 15 minutes caught in an overthink loop of scratching my head, picking up one egg product after another, I left the store almost in tears—and with no eggs.

Enough was enough. I dug into the "what" and the "wtf" so you don’t have to. I hope this saves you the time and stress it's saved me!

First things first: Tune in to your priorities.

Before you go shopping, know what's important to you when choosing eggs. Are you most concerned with the nutritional profile? Want to avoid eggs from chickens fed questionable feed or given antibiotics? Is animal welfare an issue that's near and dear to your heart? Concerned about the environment? On a budget?

Nutritional basics

One thing I like about eggs is that they provide built-in portion control. One large egg provides 6 grams of protein and 5 grams of fat (1.5 grams saturated). You'll also get about 5 percent of your daily vitamin A needs, 10 percent of your vitamin D needs, and 27 percent of the amount of brain-boosting choline you need in a day. When you see eggs labeled "omega-3," it generally means the hens were fed a diet supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids, usually DHA.

I'm often asked how many egg yolks are OK to have per week. It's not a sexy answer, but it really does depend on the person. What I can say is that the yolk is where you'll find a lot of important nutrients like choline, vitamin A, and vitamin D, plus the omega-3s. If you're paying extra for those omega-3-rich eggs, I'd recommend eating the yolk to reap those benefits rather than using those eggs to make an egg-white omelet.

Sometimes my clients freak out about the cholesterol (about 185 to 200 milligrams) and the saturated fat in egg yolks. Research varies quite a bit, and while I tend to err on the side of "eat the yolks," for people with personal or family history of heart conditions, I generally recommend consuming egg yolks within the context of your saturated fat intake for the day.

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What is the healthiest kind of egg?

The majority of egg-laying hens in the United States are raised in battery cages, where they're very close together without even enough space to spread their wings, which makes for a stressful environment where they're unable to carry out many of their natural behaviors.

Cage-free eggs

In a cage-free system, hens generally have space to walk and run around, spread their wings, and actually lay their eggs in nests. Many of these farms are third-party audited by organizations that monitor things like perching and dustbathing. While this is a much better environment, it should be noted that this does not guarantee the hens live a completely cruelty-free life, as they may be subjected to having their beaks burned off (a common practice) or being transported long distances without access to food or water, or starvation-induced molting, among other things.

Free-range eggs

"Free-range" essentially means that the hens have access to the outdoors, though there is currently no definition in the United States regarding how much access and whether that area is covered with vegetation (European standards for laying hens clearly spell this out).

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Natural eggs

"Natural" doesn't really mean anything on an egg label. It just means that nothing was added to the egg, and all eggs meet this criteria (as per USDA standards).

Organic eggs

For a company to put "USDA certified organic" on the label, the hens must be raised following the same standards as pasture-raised eggs. Additionally, while other labeling categories of eggs don't cover what laying hens are fed, there are guidelines in place for "certified organic" eggs. This means that those eggs were produced without pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers and that the hens were fed an organic diet without those substances or fed any animal by-products or antibiotics. Organic eggs are also inherently non-GMO, as the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) prohibits the use of GMOs.

The USDA grading system sometimes trips people up. Eggs are given grades (AA, A, or B) based on interior quality factors (thickness of the whites, freshness) and exterior factors like the appearance of the shell. The thicker whites of Grade AA and Grade A eggs doesn’t spread as easily as Grade B, making them the preferred grade if you’re frying your eggs, and Grade B eggs are considered to be better-suited for use in things where thinner egg whites are preferable, such as cake batters and omelets. Whether one is "better" than the other really depends on the intended use.

Just as a side note, not all USDA-graded eggs are cage-free, and not all cage-free eggs are graded by the USDA. For example, if you buy eggs at the farmers market, chances are they’re not graded. However, graded eggs that are marketed as cage-free are required to be source-verified by the USDA through onsite farm visits.

Pastured or pasture-raised eggs

"Pasture-raised" needs to be certified by a third-party organization such as the Certified Humane program. When you see this label, it means that the hens were uncaged, free to walk around and nest, and given access to outdoor space, though it doesn't guarantee the animals did not have their beaks cut off or were not subjected to starvation-induced molting. Also, this term is not USDA-regulated.

Because the pasture-raised hens were able to eat grass and bugs in addition to that commercial organic feed, it's possible that these eggs will be richer in certain nutrients like omega-3s, while the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in the organic eggs really depends on what is in the feed. In general, though, I would say that pasture-raised tend to be best, because of their high omega-3 ratios.

The best way to find out which brands are kindest to their hens is to learn about the company. Purchasing eggs from your local farmers market and talking to the farmers about their practices is another way to learn about how the hens that laid the eggs you’re purchasing were raised.

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Are brown eggs healthier than white eggs?

Another common question is whether brown eggs are healthier than white eggs or whether those eggs are of a higher quality. Actually, though, they're pretty much the same as far as nutrition stats and quality like shell thickness are concerned. The difference is that white-feathered hens tend to lay white eggs, and hens with reddish feathers tend to lay brown eggs. Some hens even lay blue or speckled eggs, though these are less common. Anyway, the reason the brown tend to be more expensive is generally because those reddish-feathered hens are larger and require more feed. All that said, when you’re buying eggs fresh from the farm where the hens were running around the yard, chances are they were those reddish-feathered hens, so in that case, the argument for quality is there—it’s just not related to the color of the egg.

What are the best eggs for the environment?

Purchasing eggs from a farmer in your area is both a great way to support local agriculture and to reduce your carbon footprint by sidestepping factory farming and long-distance transport. Pay attention to packaging as well. Avoid Styrofoam cartons, and recycle empties appropriately.

The takeaway?

My personal favorite brand I purchase regularly is Vital Farms pasture-raised eggs. I don't do this as often as I would like, but I also love buying eggs from my local farmers market to support local farmers. The most important thing? Get clear on what matters to you before you go shopping, so you don't get overwhelmed reading labels. As far as health is concerned, think about where eggs and egg yolks fit into the context of your diet. It's also important to be mindful of the environment, so whenever possible, opt for recyclable containers.

Want a fun way to use eggs? This is a trick R.D.s swear by.

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