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How to Choose Buying Different Types of Eggs – Nutrition, Safety & Cost

All you wanted was to buy a carton of eggs at the grocery store. But when you get to the refrigerated section, you’re faced with an endless combination of choices: organic, farm-raised, cage-free, vegetarian-fed, pasture-raised, nutritionally enhanced  the list goes on.

Prices on eggs also run the gamut, ranging from $2.50 per dozen to $7.50 or more. Buying eggs now requires about as much decision-making power as choosing a quality preschool for your toddler.

Well, no more. We’re going to decode the once-humble egg so you can make healthy choices for your family and save money at the grocery store.

Egg Types: Is There a Difference?

Most grocery stores are stocked with two types of eggs: white and brown. White-feathered hens with white earlobes lay white eggs, while brown-feathered hens with brown earlobes lay brown eggs.

There is no nutritional or taste difference between the two. Brown eggs generally cost a bit more than white eggs simply because brown hens are larger and require more feed than white hens. You can save money here by simply choosing white over brown.

Egg Grades: AA, A, and B

Eggs sometimes receive a grade from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Grades are based on the weight and quality of the eggs. According to EggSafety.org, the USDA grades are as follows:

Grade AA

  • Thick, firm egg whites
  • Yolks are high and round, and practically free from defects
  • Clean, unbroken shells

Grade A

  • Egg whites are reasonably firm
  • Yolks are high and round, and practically free from defects
  • Clean, unbroken shells

Grade B

  • Whites may be thinner
  • Yolks may be wider and flatter
  • Shells must be unbroken but may show slight stains
  • Usually used in liquid, frozen, or dried products

Keep in mind that not all eggs are graded. Grading is voluntary, and egg farms have to pay for this service. Egg farms that do not participate in the USDA grading program are instead monitored by the state. You’ll likely still see a grade somewhere on the carton, but it won’t bear the USDA’s official marking. Instead, the eggs will simply be labeled “Grade AA” or “Grade A.”

Egg Sizes

There are also a variety of egg sizes available, ranging from “small” to “jumbo.” Egg sizes are measured by the dozen. So, while individual eggs will vary slightly in size and weight, once those eggs are packaged, they are then sorted into a sizing category based on their net weight. As you might imagine, nutritional values escalate with the size of the egg.

Eggs Carton Store Brown Shopping

Small

  • 1.5 ounces
  • 50 calories
  • 3.5 grams fat
  • 5 grams protein

Medium

  • 1.75 ounces
  • 60 calories
  • 4 grams fat
  • 6 grams protein

Large

  • 2 ounces
  • 70 calories
  • 5 grams fat
  • 6 grams protein

Extra-Large

  • 2.25 ounces
  • 80 calories
  • 5 grams fat
  • 7 grams protein

Jumbo

  • 2.5 ounces
  • 96 calories
  • 6 grams fat
  • 8 grams protein

Most supermarkets stock medium, large, and extra-large eggs.

What’s In a Name?

Instead of educating consumers about what they’re buying, today’s egg labels often create confusion and frustration because there are few, if any, national standards for many of the categories listed below.

Natural

The word “natural” is one of the most misleading labels on egg cartons. A carton may feature smiling, happy chickens gallivanting around a sunlit pasture and be labeled as “natural”; however, all eggs are natural, even if they are laid in factory farms.

The USDA defines “natural” as a product containing no artificial ingredients or added color that is only minimally processed.

No Added Hormones

Here’s another label that’s as meaningless as “natural.” The USDA has never permitted the use of hormones in poultry. The phrase “no added hormones” is used purely for marketing purposes.

Enriched or Omega-3 Eggs

Some egg companies, such as Eggland’s Best, fortify their hens with a diet rich in flaxseed and other grains. When these grains are digested, the hens lay eggs that are richer in Omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for brain and heart health.

Eggland’s Best states that, compared to regular eggs, their enriched eggs have:

  • 10 times more vitamin E
  • Six times more vitamin D
  • Double the vitamin B12
  • Double the omega-3 fatty acids
  • 25% less saturated fat
  • 38% more lutein
  • Lower cholesterol (170 mg compared to 185 mg)

Eggland’s Best enriched eggs cost around $3.30 to $4.00 at the grocery store, which is more than double the price of regular white eggs. However, they’re lower in cholesterol and saturated fat, and higher in other essential vitamins, so for some people, they might be a healthier choice.

Free-Range

The “free-range” label might be the most misleading one you can find on an egg carton. When you read “free-range,” you automatically picture chickens that are living freely in a pasture, getting ample amounts of social time and eating lots of tasty bugs as the wind ruffles their feathers.

Unfortunately, for most brands, this is not the case. According to United Egg Producers, farms can use the term “free-range” if their chickens have access to the outdoors. This is a dangerous gray area, since some farms only let their chickens outdoors for five or 10 minutes a day  and only onto a dirt or concrete lot. Other times, hens only have access to a “pop hole,” which is basically a hole in the wall where they can stick their head out.

However, other farms label their eggs “free-range” and do provide their hens with plenty of outdoor time. But because there is no standard definition for the “free-range” label, and no oversight, it’s impossible to know which eggs are truly from free-range hens unless you research each individual egg supplier.

Cage-Free

The “cage-free” label signifies that these eggs come from hens that are not confined to a cage. However, this doesn’t mean they have access to the outdoors, and there are no federal guidelines to define how much space a hen should get. This means that some factory farms pack their hens into large sheds, giving them very little room to walk freely. Most hens in “cage-free” factory farms have about one square foot of personal space.

Organic

The “organic” label is probably the safest and most reliable label to look for because these eggs comply with the USDA’s organic standards and are certified through private and state agencies.

According to the USDA, organic eggs come from hens fed a 100% organic diet. Their feed must not contain any animal by-products, hormones, antibiotics, manure, or GMO-derived products. Even their bedding must be organic.

The organic label also helps ensure a more humane living environment. Hens must have access to the outdoors year-round, including shade, shelter, and exercise areas. Proper sanitation must be upheld, and farms must take steps to reduce or eliminate the animals’ pain or stress.

Pasture-Raised

Just like the “cage-free” and “free-range” labels, there are no federal guidelines for defining “pasture-raised” hens. According to United Egg Producers, pasture-raised hens have access to the outdoors and graze primarily on grass and bugs.

The individual space that pasture-raised hens get can vary widely, from 30 square feet to 100 square feet or more. It all depends on the size of the flock and the size of the pasture. Eggs from hens that are Certified Humane must have 108 square feet of outdoor space.

Of course, it costs farmers more money to provide ample outdoor space for their hens, so pasture-raised eggs are some of the highest priced you’ll find on grocery store shelves.

When to Pay More

Egg Dollar Bills Money Table

It’s challenging to determine which eggs are worth the higher cost because this decision is based on your food budget as well as your values. Eggs from factory farms are, of course, going to be cheaper than organic or free-range eggs. These eggs average .09 or .10 cents per egg, which is half the price of cage-free eggs, and much less than organic or pasture-raised. But there are also the ethical implications to consider.

However vague the labels are, “cage-free” and “pasture-raised” are still more humane than factory farms that confine hens to battery cages. These wire cages typically hold five to 10 hens, and each hen has less room than a sheet of paper. They cannot walk, spread their wings, or even turn around. Most hens’ bodies deteriorate from lack of use, and they live lives devoid of fresh air, exercise, social interactions, and any other natural behaviors. This caging system, which is illegal in Europe, is the life of 95% of all laying hens in the United States.

The good news is that the caging system will soon be a thing of the past. Many large companies, such as Burger King and McDonald’s, are transitioning to only sourcing eggs from cage-free farms. Thanks to their initiative, other major restaurant and supermarket chains are also demanding eggs from cage-free farms and severing ties to farms supplying eggs from caged hens.

However much you may want to buy pasture-raised, organic eggs, the reality is that these “ethical eggs” are still outside many people’s budgets.

A better option is to purchase eggs from your local farmers’ market. Local eggs generally come from small family farms where hens are allowed to graze most or all of the day. The price for these local eggs is also very reasonable: Most eggs sold at farmers markets will run $3 to $5 a dozen. Another benefit is that purchasing local eggs means that you’re also supporting farmers in your community.

To find a local farm selling eggs, or to locate a farmers’ market near you, visit Local Harvest.

How Long Do Eggs Last?

According to the American Egg Board, eggs can be stored in the refrigerator for five weeks after the package date, or three weeks after purchase, as long as they’re still in their shell. Unshelled hard-boiled eggs can be stored for one week, while shelled hard-boiled eggs should be eaten the same day they’re boiled.

Storage dates can be extended for local farmers’ market eggs if they’re unwashed. When hens lay eggs, they’re coated in a natural sealant called “bloom.” Eggs that are processed in large facilities are typically washed within 24 hours of being laid; this makes them more attractive to consumers. However, the bloom is washed off as well, which means the eggs are more vulnerable to bacteria.

Unwashed eggs can be stored for up to two months in the refrigerator, or two weeks on the counter. Store eggs with the pointy end down and the round end up. There is an air sac at the round end that helps keep out moisture, and positioning them this way will further extend the life of your eggs. Eggs are also porous, which means they’ll take on odors from your refrigerator if they’re not in a carton or a bowl wrapped in plastic wrap.

Final Word

We go through a fair amount of eggs at my house, and I’m fortunate that there’s a tiny produce market a mile from my house that sells local eggs at a reasonable price. This saves me quite a bit of money at the grocery store, where organic, pasture-raised eggs typically cost around $7 a dozen.

What kind of eggs do you buy your family?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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