The Difference Between Pasture-Raised and Free-Range Eggs

There are some people lucky enough to live in the countryside, raising chickens and collecting their own farm fresh eggs, but for most of us, buying eggs at the grocery store is common practice.

Have you ever looked at all of the different kinds of eggs you can buy? I used to buy store brand, large-sized eggs in the 18-egg containers, but recently switched to ‘organic.’

Even then, the labels and words used by marketers to describe their products to us aren’t exactly transparent. They’re used to make us feel better about our purchase.

“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.

Knowing the differences in labels will help you make purchasing decisions more in line with your values. Here are four different labels used by marketers that describe how the eggs were farmed:
Caged: Held in confined cages as small as 67 square-inches, these hens usually never see daylight and eat a diet consisting of entirely soy or corn. In the United States, about 90 percent of eggs are from hens who spend their entire lives laying eggs in their dark cages.
Cage-Free: Confined to less than 1-square-foot of space, these hens have more space than caged hens, but are not completely ‘free.’ They usually live in crowded barns and have diet of only corn or soy.
Free-Range: With less than 2-square-feet for each hen, these birds have a bit more room than the previous two, but don’t live the life that “free-range” implies. Many of them live in darkness, eating only a corn or soy diet.
Pasture-Raised: Having the most space of all the hens, these chickens reside in at least 108 square-feet each, eating a diet that consists of many different things, like bugs, feed, grass, worms and whatever else they happen across. They’re let outside early in the morning, and then called in just before the sun falls.

Additionally, one study conducted at Pennsylvania State University found that pasture-raised hens laid healthier eggs. Healthier because they contained two times as much omega-3 fat, three times the vitamin D, four times more vitamin E, and about seven times more beta-carotene than hens consuming a traditional diet of corn and soy.

This type of labeling is just the first step, however. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the four categories above, the next part is becoming familiar with third-party verifications, such as “organic,” “Non-GMO Project Verified” and “Certified Humane.” These labels typically require higher standards and stricter regulation of operational procedures.

“A third-party certification from a recognized and trustworthy organization [is] a literal seal of approval,” says Adele Douglass of Certified Humane.