What's Really the Difference Between Cage-Free, Free-Range, Pasture-Raised, and Organic Eggs?

Is one label of egg better than another to purchase?

Cruise through the egg section of the grocery store, and it's impossible to not notice the clutter. There are a lot of products, yes, but also the egg cartons themselves have many callouts and labels emblazoned on them: Pasture-raised! Cage-free! Organic! Egg producers are savvy: They know consumers like these differentiations because the consumer believes they're getting a premium product. Nearly two in three consumers surveyed said they try to choose foods made with clean ingredients, according to a recent survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC). And for those consumers, "clean" means seeking out words like "organic," "fresh," and "natural."

Like consumers, though, egg producers also find the landscape challenging. "It's confusing and frustrating for egg producers," says Kathryn McKeon, VP of Marketing at Vital Farms. When you ask which labels are the most popular, there are those that are most pervasive and also those that are most appealing to customers, she says. According to McKeon, in the last three to four years, the label cage-free has received a lot of attention as a result of restaurant chains making future promises that they're upgrading from conventional to cage-free.

Despite those change pledges, "Eggs from hens that are raised in barns with cages are still by far the largest segment of the egg category," says Trey Braswell, President of Braswell Family Farms.

That said, there are at least 10 different egg labels on cartons—including organic, omega-3 , and farm-fresh. Here, we explain the difference between four of the most popular—cage-free, free-range, pasture-raised, and organic.

Brown and white eggs in carton on yellow cloth
Scott Little

What Are Cage-Free Eggs?

"Ninety percent of consumers think cage-free means the birds go outside," says McKeon. But in reality, cage-free has no requirement for going outdoors. The hens don't have to see grass or sunshine. "What they get is 1.2 square feet per bird," explains McKeon. Cage-free is a government-defined label, unlike some other labels. That one-plus square foot is truly and literally free of cages, which sounds animal-friendly. And it can be—after all, the hens must be able to roam freely during their laying cycle.

But there's another side: Some argue that without cages, hens are able to exhibit more of their natural behaviors, and that can come at a cost. "Hens have an increase in cannibalization, predators, and disease pressure from being on the ground," says Braswell.

What Are Free-Range Eggs?

Like cage-free, free-range also largely refers to the space that the bird gets. And just like cage-free, free-range is a government-regulated term. But where free-range differs from cage-free is that each bird gets 2 square feet of outdoor access. So, in addition to a larger cage-free roaming life, the hen must be able to get outdoors, says the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

What Are Pasture-Raised Eggs?

Pasture-raised is the only one of these four terms not regulated by the government. "Where there isn't regulation, you can find a lot of B.S.," says McKeon. "We have a whole campaign that's called Bullshit Free." Pasture-raised is a term similar to "natural" on food labels where producers could use their own definition of pasture-raised, which may not match another brand or your own personal perception.

Sometimes there's a silver lining. Case in point: "Vital Farms brought the standard [for pasture-raised] to scale in the U.S. We believe birds need to go outside. They need to forage on natural grass and insects because they're omnivores," says McKeon. "Our birds have outdoor access year-round, which means our farms are in places where it's not too cold, too hot, too rainy, or too dry."

What Are Organic Eggs?

"Organic refers to the feed that birds get," says McKeon. And among consumers aiming to eat cleaner, 16% look for the organic label, per IFIC. By definition, eggs labeled organic come from hens that are uncaged, allowed to roam freely (aka uncaged), have access to the outdoors, and eat an organic-certified diet.

Are There Nutritional Differences Between These Labels?

When it comes to egg nutrition, egg producers can engineer nutrition profiles with what they feed the hens.

"There will be a noticeable nutritional difference if [hens] are fed a feed that's intended to provide a marked difference on the eggs' nutritional quality. The nutritional value of the egg is typically only impacted by the feeding program for the hen," explains Braswell. In other words, you can create the nutrition profile you want in eggs via the hens' diets. For example, eggs labeled as omega-3 eggs may come from hens that are fed flaxseed, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Which Egg Label Is the Most Sustainable?

The answer truly depends on how you define sustainable.

Some argue that conventional egg farming (think: cages and barns) has the smallest carbon footprint. "There have been multiple studies done that show that all cage-free or free-range requires vastly greater amounts of water, grains, land, and make a much larger impact on the environment," explains Braswell.

But on the flip side, when you consider the overall health of the land, "absolutely pasture-raised," is most sustainable, says McKeon. "Small flocks on land that we rotate with farmers who live on the land naturally is our standard," McKeon continues.

The Bottom Line

"Eggs have many nutritional benefits," says McKeon. Eggs aren't too calorie-heavy, and they deliver a nice protein punch with very few carbs (hello, low-carb and higher-protein dieters). You also get additional micronutrients like choline, lutein, and zeaxanthin from eggs.

Overall, which egg product you gravitate towards depends on your purchasing goals and priorities. Cost, nutrition, animal treatment, freshness, and availability all have a role in your choice. There's no one right answer for everyone, just what's best for you.

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