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A Consumer's Guide to Eggs1

Jeanine Beatty, Karla Shelnutt, and Gail P. A. Kauwell2

People have been eating eggs for centuries. Records as far back as 1400 BC show that the Chinese and Egyptians raised birds for their eggs. The first domesticated birds to reach the Americas arrived in 1493 on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the New World. Today, the two most common types of eggs people eat around the world are chicken and ostrich eggs.

Most food stores in the United States sell only chicken eggs, but there are many varieties of chicken eggs to choose from — white, brown, organic, cage free, vegetarian, omega-3 fatty acid enriched, and more. The bottom line is that buying eggs is not as simple as it used to be because more choices exist today. This publication will help you understand the choices you have as a consumer, so you can determine which variety of egg suits you and your family best.

Does Egg Shell Color Relate to Nutrient Quality?

Most grocery stores carry eggs with both brown and white shells. People pick egg color based on personal preference, what they are familiar with, or for no reason at all. Some consumers, however, believe that one color contains more nutrients than another, but this is not true. It is the breed of hen (female chicken) that determines the color of the shell. The brown pigment originates from pigment glands located in the shell gland (uterus) and is deposited when the shell is being formed. White eggs are produced because the uterus does not contain pigment glands.

Even though brown eggs and white eggs of the same size have the same nutritional value, some consumers prefer brown-shelled eggs and will pay more for them. So why do brown eggs usually cost more than white eggs? Many breeds of chickens that lay brown-shelled eggs are larger than the commercial chickens used in the industry to produce white-shelled eggs. Because of this larger body size, these birds require more feed, and this adds to the price of brown-shelled eggs. Today, feed cost represents approximately 75% of producing a dozen eggs. Because the cost of raising these hens is higher, the price of brown eggs is usually higher than white eggs. Some specialty stores and farmers markets may carry light blue or green eggs. These eggs come from a breed of hen with genetics that allow them to produce eggs with light blue or greenish shells.

Figure 1. 

People can pick eggs with white or brown shells, depending on their preference. Eggs with brown shells tend to be more expensive, but if the eggs are the same size, neither color contains more nutrients than the other.


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Organic Eggs

The National Organic Standards developed by the USDA state that eggs labeled “organic” must meet several criteria. First, the eggs must come from hens that have access to the outdoors and that are not raised in cages. However, large-scale egg producers often build small wood or concrete porches attached to the side of henhouses to meet this outdoor access standard.

Also, hens must be fed only organic feed supplied by certified organic farms. This means that the feed cannot be genetically modified, nor can it contain any animal by-products, chemicals, or pesticides. Hens used to produce organic eggs cannot be given hormones, although no egg-producing hens or meat-type birds (broilers) raised in the United States are given hormones to enhance performance. Antibiotics can be given to hens used to produce organic eggs, but only if they are needed to treat disease. Finally, the practice of “forced molting” is not allowed in hens that lay organic eggs. Molting is a normal process that occurs when hens shed old feathers as new feathers grow in while the reproductive tract is allowed to rest. Eggs produced following a molt in the second laying cycle are as big and nutritious as eggs laid during the first laying cycle.

Like brown eggs, organic eggs usually cost more because of higher feed costs. The feed used for organic eggs costs more because many of the ingredients are not readily available in the open market, unlike commercial feed used for laying hens and broilers. In general, organic feed does not always mean a better nutrient content of an egg. Feed can be organic and have low nutrient quality. Also, the price paid for organic feed is often two or three times that of conventional feed for laying hens.

Figure 2. 

Understanding the different terms egg producers use on their products will help you become a smarter consumer and know what type of eggs you are buying.


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Vegetarian Eggs

Hens fed a diet free from animal by-products are considered vegetarian. This feed does not have to be organic (although organic eggs are vegetarian eggs by default), and the producers do not have to meet other specific housing or living conditions.

Cage-Free Eggs

As the name implies, cage-free hens are not confined to a cage, but they are usually housed indoors on the floor in a large open barn. They may be given access to the outdoors, but this is not required. Cage-free hens have a higher death rate because the hens are free to peck and injure each other in the barn. These hens also come into contact with feces much more than a caged hen, so the possibility of parasitic infections and antibiotic use will be higher.

Figure 3. 

Free-range, pasture-raised, and cage-free are all terms used to describe different types of eggs. However, be aware that the USDA presently has no set standard for labeling eggs as free-range or pasture-raised.


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Free-Range Eggs

This term has no meaning when applied to eggs because “free-range” or “free-roaming” is used to describe chickens raised for meat, not eggs. The USDA does not recognize this term when it comes to eggs, and there is no USDA standard for labeling cartons with these terms.

Pasture-Raised Eggs

Like free-range eggs, the term “pasture-raised” is not regulated by the government. Without regulation, there is no guarantee that producers are telling the truth about the product, so consumers must ask questions. Instead of being caged indoors or housed in a large barn, pasture-raised hens are raised outside on a pasture or field. Producers usually use movable enclosures or pens to move hens to fresh pasture as needed. The hens are still given feed (usually of higher quality), but may peck at insects, different grasses, seeds, and weeds found in the pasture. This is considered to be much more natural; however, supplemental feed is still required because the grasses, seeds, and weeds will only meet about 5%–10% of the nutrient requirement of the hens. Pasture-raised eggs can be one of the more expensive eggs because of the higher labor and feed costs.

Omega-3 Fatty Acid Enhanced Eggs

The best known food sources of omega-3 fatty acids include certain types of cold water fish such as salmon, but varying amounts of these fatty acids are present in egg yolks. By changing a hen’s diet to include ingredients such as kelp (a type of marine algae), flax (a type of seed), or fish oil, the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in eggs can be increased. This can be desirable for people who do not eat fish but still want to get omega-3 fatty acids in their diets. Again, because this type of egg requires non-standard feed, these eggs are more costly.

Cholesterol and Low-Cholesterol Eggs

Cholesterol is a waxy substance required by the body. It has many important functions, such as making certain hormones and cell membranes. Cholesterol can come from your own body (the liver makes cholesterol) or from eating animal products such as meat, milk (whole, reduced-fat, and low-fat), cheese, and eggs. Cholesterol does not come from plants or plant products. Too much cholesterol in the diet has been associated with a higher risk of heart disease.

In 2002, the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service (USDA-ARS) conducted a nationwide study to determine the amount of cholesterol in one large egg. The result was 213 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol. In 2011, the USDA-ARS did a similar study and found that the amount of cholesterol in one large egg is now 14% lower at 185 mg. Reducing the amount of cholesterol in eggs is achieved by altering the hen’s diet.

These numbers may make a difference for individuals concerned with their cholesterol intake. However, according to the latest recommendations by the American Heart Association, the number of eggs a healthy person should consume per week is no longer limited. Nevertheless, many companies now offer eggs marketed as being “lower in cholesterol.” To use this term, the product must have 25% less cholesterol than the normal product standard. Because the newest USDA-ARS standard for one large egg is 185 mg of cholesterol, producers may need to change the labeling on their cartons. A 25% decrease from the new standard would be ~139 mg of cholesterol per large egg. The best thing you can do to ensure you are purchasing the product you want is to read the carton carefully.

Summary

Eggs aren’t just eggs anymore. Consumers have a choice when it comes to buying eggs. Many factors go into producing chicken eggs, such as genetics of the hen, housing conditions, type of feed, use of certain approved drugs, and acceptable animal welfare practices. It is always a good idea to be well informed about what you’re eating so you can make educated food choices for you and your family.

*This publication was reviewed by Dr. Richard Miles, professor emeritus, Poultry Nutrition and Management, UF/IFAS

Resources

American Egg Board – The American Egg Board allows U.S. egg producers to communicate with consumers and professionals about a variety of egg-related topics, including facts and nutrition. http://www.aeb.org/.

Center for Science in the Public Interest – This science-based organization educates the public on nutrition, food safety, and other issues. Consumers can search for egg-related topics using the search engine on this website. http://www.cspinet.org/index.html.

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service: Shell Eggs from Farm to Table – This website provides links to a variety of questions related to eggs, including how to avoid egg-related foodborne illness. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/egg-products-preparation/shell-eggs-from-farm-to-table/ct_index.

References

American Heart Association. (2012). Why cholesterol matters. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/WhyCholesterolMatters/Why-Cholesterol-Matters_UCM_001212_Article.jsp

The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture. (2013). Eggs. Retrieved from http://cuesa.org/food/eggs

DeWaal, C. S., Roberts, C., & Catella, C. (2011). Antibiotic resistance in foodborne pathogens: Evidence of the need for a risk management strategy. Center for Science in the Public Interest. Retrieved from http://cspinet.org/new/pdf/abrupdate.pdf

Exler, J., Patterson, K. Y., & Holden, J. M. (2011). Nutrient data for whole, large eggs from a USDA nationwide sampling. USDA, Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.ars.usda.gov/SP2UserFiles/Place/12354500/Articles/EB11_Egg.pdf

Katz, S. H. (2003). Encyclopedia of food and culture: Volume 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Oberholtzer, L., Greene, C., & Lopez, E. (2006). Organic poultry and eggs capture high price premiums and growing share of specialty markets. USDA Outlook Report from the Economic Research Service. LDP-M-150-01. Retrieved from http://usda01.library.cornell.edu/usda/ers/LDP-M/2000s/2006/LDP-M-12-27-2006_Special_Report.pdf

University of Illinois Extension. (2013). Incubation and embryology questions and answers. Retrieved from http://urbanext.illinois.edu/eggs/res32-qa.html

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. (2011). Fact sheets: Egg product preparation. Retrieved from http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/egg-products-preparation/egg-products-and-food-safety/ct_index

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2009, October). Appendix A: Definitions of nutrient content claims. Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm064911.htm

Welland, D. (2010, July). Eggs can be a part of a healthy diet. Today’s Dietitian. Retrieved from http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/062810p22.shtml

Footnotes

1.

This document is FCS80024, one of a series of the Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, UF/IFAS Extension. First published: November 2013. Please visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Jeanine Beatty, dietetic intern, Master of Science-Dietetic Internship Program, Food Science and Human Nutrition Department; Karla Shelnutt, PhD, RD, assistant professor, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences; Gail P. A. Kauwell, PhD, RD, professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition Department; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.