What's the difference between pasture-raised and free-range eggs?

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When it comes to eggs, market shelves are filled with terms like "cage-free" and "free-range." But the term "pasture-raised" is relatively new and many health professionals – not to mention, consumers – confuse the term with others. Even more confusing is the fact that the level of animal care among pasture-raised hens can differ between farms.

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"Consumers are increasingly skeptical of 'marketing terms' that bear little relation to the realities of how the eggs are farmed, and rightly so," says Jeff Hinds, vice president of quality assurance, compliance and food safety at Vital Farms, where I recently – full disclosure – went on a sponsored tour. Here's what I learned about which terms mean what:

  • Caged: Hens are confined to cages with a 67-square inch space each. They never see the light of day and consume a corn or soy diet. Over 90 percent of eggs in the U.S. come from hens that are kept in cages for their entire egg-laying lives.
  • Cage-Free: These ladies have more room than caged hens, since each is given less than 1 square foot. Still, they're not entirely "free," since they're confined to barns and consume a corn or soy diet.
  • Free-Range: Allotted less than 2 square feet per hen, these animals have more space than their caged and cage-free peers, but they don't get outdoors as much as you may think. Some seldom get to see the light of day and many eat a corn- or soy-based feed.
  • Pasture-Raised: These ladies are given at least 108 square feet each and consume some feed and lots of grass, bugs, worms and anything else they can find in the dirt. They tend to be let out of the barns early in the morning and called back in before nightfall.

Pastured-raised hens also produce healthier eggs, according to a 2003 study out of Pennsylvania State University. In it, researchers found that one pasture-raised egg contains twice as much omega-3 fat, three times more vitamin D, four times more vitamin E and seven times more beta-carotene than eggs from hens raised on traditional feed.

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From an agricultural standpoint, pasture-raised eggs are often superior too. When hens graze, manage their own feed and spread their own manure, farmers have less work and need less equipment.

Still, not all pasture-raised eggs are created equal. That's why some egg companies choose to get other certifications like the "Certified Humane" pasture seal. The benefit of this seal is that it identifies eggs that "meet very specific pasture standards" and that come from farms that have been inspected, according to Adele Douglass from Certified Humane. What's more, she adds, at these farms, "there has been a traceability audit to ensure every egg that goes into the carton comes from the Certified Humane pasture farms."

The "Certified Humane" pasture seal means that these hens are allowed to roam freely on the pasture during the daylight hours. They can forage, run, perch, bathe and socialize as much or as little as they choose. The farms give the hens tents for shade, water coolers and, in some cases, trees where they love to hang out. Every farm with this seal is audited by an inspector who must have a master's degree or a doctorate in animal science and be an expert on the species he or she inspects, Douglass says.

According Hinds of Vital Farms, the "Certified Humane" seal is worthwhile in the absence of federally-defined standards for pasture-raised hens. "A third-party certification from a recognized and trustworthy organization [is] a literal seal of approval," he says.

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So what does this all mean for your next shopping trip? First and foremost, become familiar with egg terms including "caged," "cage-free," "free-range" and "pasture-raised." If you can master those, then get into the nitty-gritty of third-party verifications like "organic," "Non-GMO Project Verified" and "Certified Humane." After you have all the pertinent information, you will be better equipped to make the best decision for you and your family when purchasing eggs.

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