Last week we ran out of eggs, which is surprisingly similar to an emergency of some kind.
I couldn’t get to the farm, so I bought some from the local grocery. When we finally got more pastured eggs, I took this rare opportunity to do a comparison. A little Egg vs. Egg; a yolk-to-yolk death match. And I wanted to show you 5 things I know to look for, and ones you can look for too, that can be clues to the quality of your eggs.
So which egg will crack first? Will it be a scramble to the finish line? Or will this one be over easy? Let’s boil it down. (I sincerely apologize for all this – it’s been a long week).
Our Contenders: Pastured Eggs vs. The Rest
The upper box is the one we get from pastured chickens at the local farm run by Jordan & Laura Green who learned from none other than Joel Salatin at Polyface (I love that we live just 30 minutes from there). The chickens are allowed to roam mostly free in very large sunny areas, make nests and lay eggs where they want, and eat their species-specific diet of mostly bugs, rodents, and grasses. They are supplemented with a very small amount of feed. I buy them for $5/dozen.
The lower box is from the store. I should point out I didn’t buy the cheap ones. The box promotes all the current “buzz” words to make health-conscious people pay extra for them — they are “USDA organic,” “Grade A,” “cage-free, hormone and antibiotic free,” and “vegetarian fed” (even though chickens aren’t vegetarians, this phrase sells). They were the most expensive ones in the store ($6/dozen).
From that steep price and all the marketing on the box, you’d think they were also blessed by the Pope and sprinkled with holy water. But are they really that good?
The Five Signs of a High-Quality, Highly Nutritious Egg
In general your best and maybe only chance of finding a highly nutritious egg is to know where it came from. Find a local producer who raises “pastured” chickens on their species-specific diet (as opposed to just cage-free or vegetarian fed). Chickens love lots of open space, sunlight, and grazing on bugs and grasses, and even small rodents with a small amount of organic supplemental feed.
Whatever you do, don’t believe that just because the eggs are from “cage-free” or “organic” chickens that they are optimally healthy eggs. Yes, they are better and you’re getting fewer chemicals, and antibiotics, but they should not be considered high quality just because the advertising says they were raised outside of a cage. The term “cage free” has a wide definition, and often means nothing more than they are in a barn running around — they have no access to grass, bugs, and very little access to natural sunlight.
But what if I don’t know where the eggs come from or I’m not sure about what the chickens ate?
In this case, there are 5 observations you can use to take a good educated guess. Thankfully, an egg can tell you a lot just by looking at it, if you know what to look for. A properly fed, healthy egg will often show five distinct features:
1. A Strong Shell. If you tap the shell once and it easily breaks, it can be a sign the chicken who laid it was not in optimal health. This often relates to the amount of protein in the hen’s diet as well as their age. Shell color is not a good indicator — it just denotes the breed of hen.
2. A Dark Orange-Yellow Yolk. This is the big one and is indicative of what the hen ate during the time it laid that egg. The darker orange it is, the more grasses, bugs, grubs, and worms it ate. The color is from beta-carotene (yep, the same thing that makes carrots orange) and related substances called lutein and zeaxanthin — all beneficial anti-oxidants that are associated with eye health, brain health, and lower cancer rates. A study in the Journal of Nutrition (Aug 2004) showed Lutein to be best absorbed from egg yolks over vegetable sources, likely due to the fact that it is fat-soluble (meaning it needs fat to be absorbed). Some commercial egg producers are feeding chickens with food coloring or other by-products to make yolks more yellow, but they don’t yet have to put it on the label (as in the case of farmed salmon).
But here’s a BIG WARNING: Large egg manufacturers are spending lots of money trying to figure out what color of yolk sells the best, and have learned how to manipulate the yolk color by putting dyes and particular carotenoids in the chicken feed. Unfortunately, this makes it harder to tell what you’re getting, which is why color is only one of the five important criteria you should know.
3. A Tall, Domed Yolk. A high quality egg’s yolk should hold it’s shape as a nice, tall dome. If the yolk is more flat and kind of spread out, you’re looking at a lower quality, less nutritious egg.
4. A Clear Egg “White.” If the clear (what some refer to as the “white”) has any color to it, from a little yellow to green, you’re probably looking at a poor quality egg from a chicken who was not optimally healthy. This part of the egg should be perfectly clear prior to cooking.
5. Less Running of the Clear. You’ll notice that the clear of the egg will have a more distinct shape and then around that will be some runoff that just spreads around the pan. A high-quality egg from a pastured chicken (which again is different from free range and cage free) will not have as much run-off. The less there is, the better quality your egg.
Warning: Store-bought eggs will also go through a “sanitizing” wash. These washes remove the egg’s natural defensive coating so they don’t last as long as new bacteria and oxygen can more easily enter the egg.
Yes, but are pastured eggs really more nutritious? And should we even eat eggs at all?
Some other bloggers and nutritionists will say that a pastured egg with a darker-colored yolk is no more nutritious than any other egg. These claims are not based on the evidence I’ve seen. A 2007 study showed that pastured chickens eating their species-specific diet had 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more Vitamin A, 2x the Omega 3′s (ALA), 3x times the Vitamin E, and 7x the amount of beta carotene. They also have higher levels of other non-vitamin anti-oxidants such as lutein and zeaxanthin as stated above.
In our modern world, more and more nutrients are harder and harder to find. That’s why I think unless you are allergic, eggs should be a part of your diet several times a week. They are great absorbable sources of rare nutrients like Vitamin A, E, D, and K, zinc, folate, choline, selenium, and lutein, and astaxanthin.
Now that you’re an Egg-spert, Let’s compare…
While my camera skills and the lighting isn’t the best, you can probably spot the store bought, supposedly “USDA organic” “cage free” so-called “healthy” egg on the left — it’s got a bright yellow yolk, slightly dis-colored “clear” part, and what you may not be able to tell is that while it has a distinct shape to the clear, it was also far more runny.
The pastured one on the right has a large domed, dark orange yolk, a very clear “clear,” and was well-shaped and less runny. And I have to say the yolk of the pastured egg tasted awesome, while the bright yellow one tasted a little bit like nothing.
A little “a’hem, excuse me?”
So I’ve gotten quite a bit of criticism on this post from people who say, “yes, but I raise my own pastured chickens and they don’t have these five things, so you must be wrong about what makes a healthy egg!” Well, here’s the sad truth: just because you raise your own chickens on your own land, does not necessarily mean your chickens are in the best health or lay quality eggs.
In the same way, just because I re-build a car myself in my garage doesn’t necessarily mean I have the best quality car. A chicken must have an optimal diet regardless of where it is raised or by whom. And just because they’re in your backyard honestly says little to me about how much nutrition they are eating or the quality of the eggs they lay.
These are just a few of the reasons to buy eggs from local (healthy) pastured chickens. If you can’t find them in your area…keep looking. I guarantee there are people in your area who have very healthy chickens.
The point is this: Never trust labels or buzz words on egg packaging. Words like “cage free,” “free range,” “vegetarian fed,” and even “omega 3 enriched” mean almost nothing.
Just know where your eggs came from, know what the chickens eat and how they live, and look for the 5 signs I’ve shared above. It’s not a bulletproof approach, but I believe these are the best we can do to assess the quality of the eggs we eat…unless you have the money to send them into a lab to be analyzed, I think this is probably the best we can do at home using observational science.
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