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What Does Organic, Cage Free, Free Range Eggs Mean?

What Does Organic, Cage Free, Free Range Eggs Mean jillconyers.com #nutrition #foodlabels #organiceggs

What image comes to mind when you think free range or cage free? My images of hens roaming a green pasture in the warm sunshine next to a red barn have been challenged.

In the U.S., eggs are classified according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards. Covering the egg cartons you see terms like, “All-Natural”, “Cage-Free”, “Free-Range”, “Farm Fresh”, “Organic”, “No Hormones”, and “Omega-3”. And the longer you stare at them, the more confusing it can be.

The labels on egg cartons are not only confusing, they can also be misleading. What you might think the labels mean may not be what the label means. Confused?

What Does Organic, Cage Free, Free Range Eggs Mean jillconyers.com #nutrition #foodlabels #organiceggs

What do the labels mean?

Grade A / Grade AA
Grade AA and Grade A indicate eggs that have thick whites, yolks that are free from defects, and clean shells.

Organic
Fed with organic feed (no additives, animal byproducts or GMO), these hens live cage free with access to the outside. Organic certification also means maintaining of high animal welfare standards. Hens cannot been treated with antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, fertilizers from synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. The USDA inspects the farm before they are allowed to use the “organic” label.

Free Range
This term has been approved by the USDA for animals that were raised in a sheltered facility with unlimited access to food, water, and access to the outdoors. It does not necessarily mean the animal actually went outside, only that there was a door to the outside. Free range gives no indication of the outdoor conditions.

Cage-Free
This simply means the animals were not kept in cages. They are still in an enclosed facility, but with unlimited access to food and fresh. Cage free does not give any indication of the conditions of the facility they’re enclosed in. As I once believed, cage-free does NOT mean the animals were free to roam in pastures, or that they have access to outdoors.

Pasture-Raised
The USDA has not developed a definition for this term yet, however many farmers use it to distinguish themselves from “free range” farms. Pasture raised means animals are free to roam around outdoors with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and indoor shelter in case of inclement weather. This different from “free range” in that pasture-raised animals spend more time outdoors than they do indoors. Though it’s often the case, don’t assume the pasture-raised animals were not given antibiotics or growth hormones or whether or not the animals were given organic feed or GMO.

Antibiotic Free Eggs
According to the USDA, this label can be used on beef and poultry products, provided that the producer supplies “sufficient documentation … that the animals were raised without antibiotics.”

Omega-3
An egg with this label indicates the hen is fed a diet enriched with fish oil and flaxseed to have a higher amount of heart healthy Omega-3 fatty acid. How much higher? The egg producers aren’t required to provide that information.

Certified Humane
This label doesn’t guarantee that the hens have ever seen the light of day. Sure, the birds are ‘uncaged’ but they can be contained inside.  There ARE requirements for such things as stocking density, number of perches and laying boxes.

A study done by Mother Earth News, found that compared to conventional American eggs, real free-range eggs have less cholesterol and saturated fat, plus more vitamins A and E, beta carotene and polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids.

A little less confused now?

The bottom line according to the labels, the eggs to buy are certified humane, organic, and pasture raised.

Why is food labeling in the U.S. so confusing? Do the labels mean what you thought they mean?

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79 Comments

  1. I never understood the differences between all of these labels. I also had different images in my head from what the terms actually mean.

  2. this is a great breakdown & explanation of something I have always wondered. Now I know what I am buying exactly which will help for sure

  3. This was really informative! I never really knew much about egg grades, let alone the cage free ones. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I do wish that they had more labeling – specifically GMO foods. I end up trying to buy mostly local food so that I know where it is coming from. This is great information though. I think there should be more of it, and perhaps a short class on how to read the labels 🙂

  5. Yes, I can see how this could be confusing to some individuals. We have allergies so are pretty informed and pretty picky about our eggs! When I can – I get them from the local farmer!

  6. What a great list of definitions! I am grateful I live in an area where we have access to local, organic, free range eggs!

  7. This is always so confusing to me! Thank you for breaking it down into such an easy manner!

  8. All this time I have been buying free-range eggs and am wondering if I should re-think my options. I think they need to be clearer in the way they label things!

  9. I’ve been seeing a lot of discussions lately about what type of eggs to buy, and how you don’t really know how they are treated, even if it says free-range, etc. I wish the labels were clearer and that the FDA did a better job regulating our food. No matter what you eat, animal protein or plant-based, it would be nice to know our food is safe, treated well, and not packed full of extras we and they don’t need.

  10. I always see these key words but am glad to know what the differences are and what to look for when shopping now! Thanks for sharing!

  11. Robin Rue (@massholemommy) says:

    This was really interesting. I Had no idea what it meant, but then again, I am not picky about where my eggs come from.

  12. Eat Happy Eggs! I was lucky enough to get to know a lot about these eggs and even the “girls” which happen to be their hens laying the eggs. It is incredible how well they are treated, as though they are pets. Plus these eggs taste better than any I have ever tried. http://thehappyeggco.com

  13. Thanks for sharing this! I never knew the difference, and definitely always thought free range was a lot more unrestricted than it probably is.

  14. Eggs can be so confusing. Like is there even a difference between brown and white eggs health wise? And now all of these terms. Thanks for breaking it down for us 😀

  15. This was such a helpful article. It’s so crazy how they pick and choose names to make you confused. I try to do organic, but now I will make it a priority. Thanks Jill!

    1. Happy to share Sam. Do you ever wonder with the confusing and misleading labels what are they trying to hide? Or is it just me 🙂

  16. This is a great post to help people understand the differences in labeling. Our farm and all of our family farmers are certified humane We produce organic, cage free, free range and pasture raised eggs and are very proud of what we do!

    1. You have the ideal situation Sandra. There’s such a comfort in knowing where your food comes from. Maybe you can ship to me 🙂

  17. thanks for sharing! Labels are so confusing sometimes I actually just figured out that the only way I really know what I am getting when I buy eggs is if I buy only organic.

    1. Happy to share Toni! Do you ever wonder with the confusing and misleading labels what are they trying to hide. Or is it just me 🙂

  18. These days there are so many options that make things confusing and difficult. Like ice cream flavors…there are so many to choose from but I just want “ice cream.”

    Thanks for this post. It was very informative. I’ll make more sense of the labels when I go shopping for eggs next time.

    <3 Jamaica

  19. Jill this post is SO helpful and informative. I’m giving it to my bf to read because I just had to school him on how brown eggs aren’t healthier than white ones!

    1. Hi Lauren. I should have included brown vs white egg info. It’s true. It’s simply the color. Brown eggs are not necessarily better than white.

  20. This is so great Jill! I always stand at the grocery store not sure which eggs to buy because there are SO many labels I just don’t understand. This is so, so helpful!

    1. Me too Brie! It’s almost funny how long I would stand in front of the stacks of eggs and then to find out I wasn’t making the best choice. Ugh! I am now 🙂

  21. Sharon @ Mommy Runs It says:

    Thanks, Jill! I learned a lot. 🙂

  22. I’ve noticed a big difference with pasture raised eggs! If I can’t get those I always buy organic. More than worth it to me 🙂 great guide!

    1. So worth it to me too Michele! I thought I was making the best choice. Little did I know.

  23. Hi Jill! I’m eating eggs as I read this! Thanks for the clarification. And of course, it’s not as easy as you’d think to understand these labels. I try to reach for organic, but I need to make sure I get the other titles on there too! Happy weekend! 🙂

    1. Happy to share Ashley. Doesn’t it all make you wonder with the misleading and confusing labels what are they trying to hide from the consumer. Ugh!

  24. Happy Friday! I am so glad to party with you again! So many inspiring recipes and ideas to explore. And new friends to meet. Thanks for hosting.
    All the best, Deborah

  25. great info- no I did not know that- I always buy the eggs in the pink carton! LOL! I need to make some notes for my trip to the store!

  26. Thanks for the clarifications Jill! I’ve never paid attention to egg labels.

  27. This is great info. I knew most of this from looking into it on my own awhile ago but it’s SO important to be an informed consumer! Especially when it comes to food.
    Karen @karenlovestorun

    1. That’s great Karen. I have no idea why it has taken me so long to find out more info about this. I thought I was making the best choice. Little did I know.

  28. This is a great guide! I never really know what to get, but I’m going to pay more attention this week to the eggs I buy. Thanks, Jill!

    1. What eggs did you buy Nicole? I used to buy cage free eggs with the image of hens walking around freely outside in the sunshine. Now that I know better I’ll be looking for different labels.

  29. Thanks for sharing! That’s a lot of egg information I’ve never understood 🙂 My husband thinks we should buy a few chickens and just have our own eggs. For how many eggs we eat, that may be the way to go! My thoughts are farm fresh is the way to go. My parents raise the beef we eat and gives me a lot of peace knowing where our food comes from!

    1. Hi Amy, I think raising your own (or someone from your family) is the ideal situation. There’s a comfort in knowing where your food comes from.

  30. Whoa nelly, this is all so great to know! Yep, isn’t it funny yet sad how we tend to imagine those cage-free chickens out in the pasture, when they aren’t. I remember watching that Paul McCartney (well, narrated by him) animal rights video, and some of the conditions of these poor animals made Chad and I vegetarians for awhile. We didn’t stick with it, but I really do want to start eating less meat.

    THanks for all the clarity about eggs. I didn’t know about the pasture-raised term! Shoot, makes me want to raise my own chickens. Wait, we have bird dogs. DOH! Well, we’ll figure out something! Thanks Jill!

    1. You raise chickens and supply me with eggs without misleading and confusing labeling. Eggs I Can Trust From Jess! You can’t help but wonder with the confusing and misleading labels what are they trying to hide. Or is it just me?

  31. Thanks for breaking this down! I had the misconception that cage-free meant that they were free to roam around too. :[ I actually really want pet chickens in the future!

    1. No pet chickens for me so the next best thing is to be a well informed consumer.

  32. Wonderful information, Jill! Sometimes it’s tough to know what food labels mean, so thanks for taking the time to break down what all of those labels on the egg cartons mean. It’s always a good thing to be a well-informed consumer!

    1. Hi Beth. Before researching and writing this post I thought I knew what the labels meant. It was discouraging to find out that I was wrong with some very important distinctions. Now we’re all well informed and know what to look for 🙂

    1. Deborah that’s a great question! I thought it was interesting that the farmers aren’t required to indicate how much more Omega 3.

    1. Hi Julie, it’s almost comical how long I would stand in front of the stacks of eggs trying to decided. So much of this post was new info to me and I’m looking for different labels now. With the misleading and tricky words it makes me wonder what they’re trying to hide.

    1. Me too Smitha haha. I tried to make the best decision but after researching and writing this I realized I wasn’t. I’m looking for different labels now.

  33. I never really knew what it meant BUT I had a COO who had chickens on his land and they laid eggs everywhere everyday. I think he told me about 20 eggs a DAY and his family could not keep up with it so he would bring them in the office. All I know is those were the BEST TASTING eggs every. I would bring my basket in the office, go in the fridge, pick the eggs I want and cook them that week. He brought FREE eggs in daily. It was wonderful.

    1. That is an ideal situation Diatta. I’m sure you had a feeling of being able to trust what you were getting.

      1. I did trust what Jay was bringing in. He also advised that fresh eggs were NOT good for boiling. They also did not have that sulfur smell when you cooked or ate them. I miss those eggs.

  34. I was just thinking about this yesterday when I bought eggs at the grocery store. I always buy organic eggs now but the wording is so confusing for those who don’t know what the terms mean!

    1. I know! I used to buy cage free eggs with the image of hens walking around freely outside in the sunshine. Now that I know better I’ll be looking for different labels.

  35. I hate that food labeling is so confusing but I also don’t like that there are so many meanings to the different certifications and descriptors. I’m find with things being labeled with multiple descriptors as long as it is well standardized! But then again, why don’t we just have a more responsible system from the get go!

    1. That’s exactly what I thought Suz. Plus, with the tricky misleading labels you can’t help but wonder, what are they trying to hide. Ugh!

    1. Thanks Megan. I don’t know why it has taken me so long to clarify this. I’m happy I finally did.

  36. Really great info, Jill! I sometimes switch between organic and free range, and there’s been no logical reason to why I choose one or the other–all comes down to mood. Now I know the differences!

    1. Hi Amanda. I used to buy organic cage free eggs with the image of hens walking around freely outside in the sunshine. Little did I know.

  37. This was very informative, Jill. I have been purchasing “cage free” since I can find that at my grocery store. However, my husband teases me about that and said they are still crammed into a barn – like you indicate could be the case under the label guidelines. Seems like the only way to know for sure what you are getting is raising your own chickens! (or possibly a farmers market)

    1. Hi Kelli, that was one thing that got me! I used to buy cage free eggs with the image of hens walking around freely outside in the sunshine. Now that I know better I’ll be looking for different labels.

  38. This is a great guide to a very confusing consumer issue! Have you seen the documentary In Organic We Trust? It’s very interesting, and dives deeper into the organic certification process in the US. Great post! 🙂

    1. Hi Erin and no I haven’t seen the movie but I’m going too. Sounds too interesting not to watch. Thanks!

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