The results are in: Eggs from hens allowed to peck on pasture are vastly superior to those from chickens raised in cages.
Most of the eggs currently sold in supermarkets are nutritionally inferior to eggs produced by hens raised on pasture. Thatís the conclusion we have reached following completion of the 2007 Mother Earth News egg testing project. Our testing has found that, compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture contain:
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
These amazing results come from 14 flocks around the country that range freely on pasture or are housed in movable pens that are rotated frequently to maximize access to fresh pasture and protect the birds from predators. We had six eggs from each of the 14 pastured flocks tested by an accredited laboratory in Portland, Ore. The chart at the end of this article shows the average nutrient content of the samples, compared with the official egg nutrient data from the USDA for "conventional" (confined hens) eggs. The chart lists the individual results from each flock.
The 2007 results are similar to those from 2005, when we tested eggs from four flocks all managed as truly free range. But our tests are not the first to show that pastured eggs are more nutritious. We think these dramatically differing nutrient levels are most likely the result of the different diets of birds that produce these two types of eggs. True free-range birds eat a chickenís natural diet ó 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. Instead they are fed the cheapest possible mixture of corn, soy and/or cottonseed meals, with all kinds of additives .
The conventional egg industry wants very much to deny that free-range/pastured eggs are better than eggs from birds kept in crowded, inhumane indoor conditions. A statement on the American Egg Boardís Web site says "True free-range eggs are those produced by hens raised outdoors or that have daily access to the outdoors."
Baloney. Theyíre trying to duck the issue by incorrectly defining "true free-range." And the USDA isnít helping consumers learn the truth, either: "Allowed access to the outside" is how the USDA defines "free-range." This inadequate definition means that producers can, and do, label their eggs as "free-range" even if all they do is leave little doors open on their giant sheds, regardless of whether the birds ever learn to go outside, and regardless of whether there is good pasture or just bare dirt or concrete outside those doors.
Both organizations need to come clean. True free-range eggs are those from hens that range outdoors on pasture, which means they can do whatís natural to them ó forage for all manner of green plants and insects.
The Egg Board statement goes on to say: "The nutrient content of eggs is not affected by whether hens are raised free-range or in floor or cage operations."
Again, that is hogwash. They think they can simply ignore the growing body of evidence that clearly shows that eggs are superior when the hens are allowed to eat their natural diet. Or maybe they think itís OK to mislead the public to protect egg producersí bottom line.
After we published our first report about the high nutrient levels in pastured eggs, the Egg Nutrition Council questioned our "suggestion" that pastured eggs were better in their Aug. 8, 2005, newsletter:
"Barring special diets or breeds, egg nutrients are most likely similar for egg-laying hens, no matter how they are raised." Thereís that double-speak, again: "Barring special diets ..." Since when are diets not a part of how chickens are raised? Come on, people, weíve cited six studies showing that pastured eggs are better. The best you can say is "most likely" this evidence is wrong? Cite some science to support your assertions! The U.S. Poultry and Egg Association offers the same misleading statement on its Web site:
"What are free-range eggs? Free-range eggs are from hens that live outdoors or have access to the outdoors. The nutrient content of eggs from free-range hens is the same as those from hens housed in production facilities with cages."
Itís amazing what a group can do with a $20 million annual budget. Thatís what factory-farm egg producers pay to fund the AEB each year to convince the public to keep buying their eggs, which we now know are substandard.
The Egg Boardís misleading claims about free-range/pastured eggs pervade the Internet, even though the Board has been aware of the evidence about the nutrient differences at least since our 2005 report. We found virtually the same (unsubstantiated) claim denying any difference in nutrient content on Web sites of the American Council on Science and Health (an industry-funded nonprofit), the Iowa Egg Council, the Georgia Egg Commission, the Alberta (Canada) Egg Producers, Hormel Foods, CalMaine Foods and NuCal Foods.
But the most ridiculous online comments turned up at www.supermarketguru.com, a site maintained by a "food trends consultant." It says:
"FREE RANGE: Probably the most misunderstood of all claims, itís important to note that hens basically stay near their food, water and nests, and the idea of a happy-go-lucky bird scampering across a field is far from their natural way of life. The claim only means that the hens have access to the outdoors, not that they avail themselves of the opportunity. The hens produce fewer eggs so they are more expensive; higher product costs add to the price of the eggs. The nutrient content is the same as other eggs."
What nonsense! If youíve ever been around chickens then you know that whoever wrote that certainly hasnít. Chickens will spend almost their entire day ranging around a property scratching and searching for food. Even as tiny chicks, they are naturally curious and will begin eating grass and pecking curiously at any insects and seeds. Scampering across a field looking for food is precisely their natural way of life.
Supermarket Guru did get one thing right, though. Free-range/pastured eggs are likely to be more expensive because production costs are higher. As usual, you get what you pay for. If you buy the cheapest supermarket eggs, you are not only missing out on the valuable nutrients eggs should and can contain, you are also supporting an industrial production system that treats animals cruelly and makes more sustainable, small-scale egg production difficult.
You can raise pastured chickens easily right in your back yard ó see our recent articles about how to do it here. Or you can find pastured eggs at local farmstands and farmers markets, or sometimes at the supermarket. Tell the store manager you want eggs from pastured hens, and encourage the manager to contact local producers. To find pastured producers near you, check out www.eatwild.com or www.localharvest.com. http://www.1to1vitamins.com/news/2007/artl6673.html