Eggs. They’re small, roundish, and surprisingly mysterious. You might navigate your way swiftly and surely through all the isles of the supermarket, only to be stumped by the dilemma that these nutritional powerhouses present.
Eggs can be an amazing source of essential fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals and beneficial compounds when they come from quality sources. The problem is, it’s not always obvious what those sources are, and how to pick out the healthiest eggs from an extensive selection which, to all outward appearances, look almost identical. In this post, I’ll explore why you really need to prioritize “good” eggs over “bad” ones, and then how to go about digging out those good ones from amongst the masses.
Why you need to invest in high-quality eggs
In the paleo, primal, bulletproof, and wider health communities, eggs have developed into something of a cult following in recent years. There’s a good reason for this – they’re an inexpensive, readily available, easy-to-prepare source of healthy fats, protein, and nutrients. Few foods rival the humble egg’s nutritional capacity, but only when those eggs come from healthy, happy hens. And while this may seem a simple enough solution, the agricultural industry is slowly but surely turning egg production into the stuff of nightmares.
When it comes to buying eggs, most people make the mistake of prioritizing price over quality. I myself used to be one of those people, heading straight for the lowest-priced eggs and feeling like I just scored a financial victory as I strolled towards the checkout. After doing some research, however, I later discovered that those decisions made absolutely no sense, due to the fact that I was paying far more in health problems from eating things like inferior eggs than I could ever save by tightening my budget in the store.
While for some foods the difference in price is simply due to branding, eggs are an excellent example of how price can be an excellent indicator of quality. In general, cheaper eggs are cheaper for a reason:
- cheaper eggs come from hens that are jammed wing-to-wing into tiny battery cages inside vast, reeking warehouses. These cages offer little to no movement, certainly not the movement required for a hen to be healthy, but this allows farmers to squeeze in far more chickens into a small space – effectively increasing their productivity per square foot of warehouse space.
- cheaper eggs come from hens which are given the lowest-cost feed available, feed which is designed to fatten the chickens up as fast as possible (and therefore get them laying faster) but not to support the development of healthy bones and organs
- cheaper eggs come from hens which have their wings and beaks clipped to prevent harm or cannibalism in such as tight space, are injected with growth hormones to ensure they reach their egg-laying age faster, and regularly fed antibiotics to ensure they don’t get sick or die due to the cramped conditions.
The result is warehouses which can literally pump out thousands of eggs, increasing productivity and lowering the cost of these eggs. Unfortunately, the benefits stop there. Many of the toxins and health problems of the hens are passed into their eggs, meaning they contain antibiotic and growth hormone residues, a very poor omega-3 to omega-6 ratio (making them pro-inflammatory), and high levels of environmental toxins.
Eggs which come from healthy chickens, on the other hand, are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, have bucketloads of nutrients, keep you feeling fuller for longer, and are much less likely to contain harmful environmental toxins. For this reason, a 3 or 4 dollar difference in price could mean the difference between something which can harm your health and increase your risk of disease, or something which can nurture your body and actually work to heal any ailments you might be suffering from. Anyone who is aware of this difference and still goes for the cheaper eggs clearly doesn’t value their health at all.
Finding the healthiest eggs
While price is a good starting point for sorting the quality eggs from the bad, it unfortunately isn’t a hard and fast rule. Many companies market their pricey eggs as a higher-quality product, with fancy packaging and fancier words, when really their eggs are just as bad as the cheap ones. Here’s how to know to look out for the best eggs:
- Pasture-raised: these are the best eggs you’ll ever find. Chickens which produce these eggs live on farms that allow them to roam freely outside, eating foods of their choice (like tasty worms and bugs!) and getting plenty of sunlight. These hens are free from hormones, antibiotics, and the hardship of a life spent inside a tiny cage.
- Free-range: not as good as pasture-raised, but still a healthy choice. Hens that produce these eggs are permitted limited access to the outdoors, and don’t get kept in cages. They can move around, but for most of their lives it’ll be inside a large open-plan warehouse rather than outside.
- Free-run: a slightly lower quality version of free-range, and often synonymous with “cage-free”. These hens don’t have access to the outdoors, but can move around freely and are much healthier than caged hens.
- Cage-free: pretty self explanatory really! Cage-free can include all three of the above egg-types, however if you can’t see any other labels then chances are these hens are confined to the indoors.
- Organic: The organic label assures you that those eggs come from hens which were raised on feed without additives, animal by-products, growth hormones and antibiotics. In certain places, this also means that such hens must be given access to the outdoors, perches, dust-bathing areas and stipulated minimum space requirements. Don’t be sucked in by “organic vegetarian fed” labels – chickens need to eat worms and bugs in order to thrive, meaning “vegetarian” is not necessarily a good thing.
At the end of the day, all of the above types of eggs are better than caged eggs. Generally, the price of eggs will go up according to how the hens were raised (pasture-raised being most expensive, cage-free being least expensive). Where possible, try to find eggs which tick more than one box – i.e. free-range eggs which are also organic. Also keep in mind that “omega-3” eggs are a bit of a gimmick, and you’re far better off getting high levels of omega-3s from eggs lain by healthy chickens than by chickens who have had artificial sources of omega-3 slipped into their feed.
If you’d like to find out more, this article provides a really good analysis of the various eggs available on the market and how to determine whether they’re good or bad.