What makes an egg healthy to eat? Supermarket egg cartons have labels spanning from “animal welfare approved” to “vegetarian”—all purportedly bearing different health benefits to influence selection of the brand by consumers.1 Peek under the lid to examine the nutrition in the average egg, which is determined by the USDA’s National Agricultural Library.2 The documentation for the research noted wide statistical swings for vitamin D in eggs, and explains “It is likely that this change is due to the fortification of specific feeds given to the laying hens.”3
While the USDA acknowledges that the eggs of well-nourished hens are richer in vitamins, the research doesn’t stop there. Mother Earth News built upon the government’s findings to compare commercial eggs with eggs from pastured chickens. In a series of nationwide tests, pastured eggs contained:
- 1/3 less cholesterol
- 1/4 less saturated fat
- 2/3 more vitamin A
- 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
- 3 times more vitamin E
- 7 times more beta carotene
The article explains the jump in nutrient values: “True free-range birds eat a chicken’s natural diet—all kinds of seeds, green plants, insects and worms, usually along with grain or laying mash. Factory farm birds never even see the outdoors, let alone get to forage for their natural diet.”4
But what about those “free-range” eggs from the store? The devil is in the details: the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association defines “free range” as follows: Free-range eggs are from hens that live outdoors or have access to the outdoors.”5 The definition is dubious at best, given the loose regulations for access to the outdoors. Even in the best battery-chicken scenario, hens must compete with hundreds or thousands of compatriots for access to any wild food available in the limited space and time they are allowed outside.
Fans of backyard eggs will say that you can taste the difference. You can see it, too. Back in 1965, the poultry industry had a PR problem—consumers remembered what healthy egg yolks look like. Foraged hens produce eggs with deep orange yolks, and researchers set out to discover how to mimic the coloration for battery chicken operations.6
Check out these photos comparing “organic” eggs with eggs from pastured hens.7
Backyard hens offer us nutrient-rich eggs with golden yolks, no extra fortification necessary. By being caretakers for a small flock, we can regulate their access to the outside to the satisfaction of our own definitions. And we can help to sustain positive health for our families and friends through the nutritional benefits of small-scale pastured eggs.
1. “What’s In A Name? The Beyond Organic Backyard Egg Question,” Northwest Edible Life: Life on Garden Time. An entertaining take on labels.
2. USDA’s National Agricultural Library
3. Composition of Foods Raw, Processed, Prepared USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 25
4. Meet Real Free-Range Eggs, Mother Earth News.
5. U.S. Poultry and Egg Association
6. “Production of Egg Yolk Coloring Material by a
Fermentation Process,” Applied Microbiology, Vol. 13, No. 6; Nov., 1965.
7. Photos by Chicama Run Farm and The Art of Doing Stuff