How to Buy Organic Eggs: Pastured vs. Free Range Eggs

by Ann Marie Michaels on February 20, 2009

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organic eggs

If you read my blog regularly, you know I love eggs. We typically go through about 3-4 dozen eggs per week. Our little family consisting of 2 adults and one toddler.

Eggs are one of the most economical ways to increase the nutrients in your family’s diet. Eggs are full of vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin E, omega 3 fatty acids, beta carotene, cholesterol (which is good for you), and saturated fat (also good for you).

Why Pastured Eggs?
I don’t just buy any eggs. I only buy pastured eggs from local farmers who keep their chickens outdoors and let them roam around in the sun, eating bugs. I also only buy eggs from farmers who do not feed their chickens soy.

For years, I bought organic free range eggs. From what I had read, organic free range eggs were the best.

I knew supermarket eggs were bad. The chickens are crowded in cages. They don’t even have room to move or turn around. They’re pumped with antibiotics and fed genetically modified feed. They’re sick and very unhealthy — which is why it’s so common to find salmonella with factory farm chickens and eggs.

So I always bought “organic” “free range” eggs. It was about a year and a half ago that I discovered truly pastured eggs. The definition of “free range” or “cage free” is that they give the chickens “access to the outdoors”. What does that mean? Uh, nothing. Do they really go outside? No, usually not. They’re crowded into large, windowless sheds and they rarely ever go outside.

They may be “organic” and “cage free” but these are not truly healthy birds. Since they’re not given antibiotics, they are very susceptible to disease. The people who work at these “big organic” chicken farms have to wear cleanroom suits when they go in to visit the birds.

This is what a cleanroom suit looks like:

cleanroom suit

I ask you, folks, what’s wrong with this picture? Isn’t it a bit weird that farmers have to dress up like they’re working at a nuclear power plant?

The Homegrown Evolution blog posted these fabulous photos a while back in a brilliant post called An Open Letter to Trader Joe’s. They doctored a photo of an egg carton from Trader Joe’s to show how the chickens are really raised.

Here’s the egg carton before:

Trader Joe's egg carton

Don’t those chickens look happy? Pecking for worms in the sunshine, a red barn in the distance. Just like we remember from childhood storybooks.

Here’s the egg carton after:

There’s the guy in his cleanroom suit, the windowless shed, miles of green pasture all around without a chicken in sight! The true picture of “big organic” chicken farms. (If you want to read more about this, pick up a copy of Michael Pollan’s excellent book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. You can read the chapter about “big organic” chicken farms, “Big Organic: Supermarket Pastoral” online.)

Here’s the thing: chickens need to be outdoors to get vitamin D from the sun. Chickens are also not vegetarians. You always see egg crates boasting a “vegetarian diet”. Guess what, folks? Chickens are supposed to eat bugs and worms. That’s where they are supposed to get their protein!

It was around that time that I discovered this article, Meet Real Free Range Eggs on the Mother Earth News website. They did a study in which they compared the nutrients in real pastured eggs to supermarket eggs.

Just look at these numbers! Compared to supermarket eggs (from factory farms), real pastured eggs have:

5 times more vitamin D
2/3 more vitamin A
2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
3 times more vitamin E
7 times more beta carotene

Click here to download the PDF with the results.

The Mother Earth News wasn’t the only one doing research on this. Check out all these other studies they cite:

In 1974, the British Journal of Nutrition found that pastured eggs had 50 percent more folic acid and 70 percent more vitamin B12 than eggs from factory farm hens.

In 1988, Artemis Simopoulos, co-author of The Omega Diet, found pastured eggs in Greece contained 13 times more omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids than U.S. commercial eggs.

A 1998 study in Animal Feed Science and Technology found that pastured eggs had higher omega-3s and vitamin E than eggs from caged hens.

A 1999 study by Barb Gorski at Pennsylvania State University found that eggs from pastured birds had 10 percent less fat, 34 percent less cholesterol, 40 percent more vitamin A, and four times the omega-3s compared to the standard USDA data. Her study also tested pastured chicken meat, and found it to have 21 percent less fat, 30 percent less saturated fat and 50 percent more vitamin A than the USDA standard.

In 2003, Heather Karsten at Pennsylvania State University compared eggs from two groups of Hy-Line variety hens, with one kept in standard crowded factory farm conditions and the other on mixed grass and legume pasture. The eggs had similar levels of fat and cholesterol, but the pastured eggs had three times more omega-3s, 220 percent more vitamin E and 62 percent more vitamin A than eggs from caged hens.

The 2005 study Mother Earth News conducted of four heritage-breed pastured flocks in Kansas found that pastured eggs had roughly half the cholesterol, 50 percent more vitamin E, and three times more beta carotene.

But What About the Cost?
It’s true that pastured eggs cost more. But isn’t it obvious that it is worth it? You’d have to eat 5 supermarket eggs to get the same amount of vitamin D from one pastured egg. You may be able to buy a dozen eggs for a buck or two at the grocery store, but you get what you pay for. The national average for pastured eggs is about $4-5 per dozen. However, they are worth that in terms of nutrient density.

I did a little figuring to see how economical pastured eggs really are.

Let’s say you pay $5 for a dozen pastured eggs. That means each egg costs about 42 cents. A “large” egg is about 2 ounces, so you’re paying 20 cents per ounce.

Twenty cents, people. How does that compare to other foods of a similar nutrient density? (The prices are based on what we pay here in California.)

Raw grass fed organic butter ($8 per pound): 50 cents per ounce
Raw grass fed organic cream ($7 per pint): 44 cents per ounce
Pasteurized grass fed butter – ($5 per pound): 31 cents per ounce
Grass fed organic ground beef ($4 per pound): 25 cents per ounce
Grass fed organic beef liver ($3 per pound): 19 cents per ounce
Raw grass fed organic milk ($10.50 per gallon): 8 cents per ounce

Where Do You Find Real Pastured Eggs?
When I made the switch from free range eggs to real pastured eggs, I had no idea where to get them. I had no idea that they were right under my nose at the local farmer’s market. There are three different farmers at my local farmer’s market in Santa Monica who sell pastured eggs. (I’m pretty sure one of them does feed his birds soy, so I only buy from the other two, Rocky Canyon and Healthy Family Farms.)

If there is a local farmer’s market in your area, look for eggs. Talk to the farmer and ask if the birds are kept outdoors and ask what they are fed. (It’s best not to feed soy — its a whole ‘nother blog post.)

You can also check out the Eat Wild or Local Harvest websites to look for pastured eggs in your area.

Still can’t find ‘em? Contact someone from your local Weston A. Price chapter (this is how I found my local pastured eggs — I met my WAPF chapter leader at the farmer’s market and she introduced me to the farmers).

Photo credit: auxesis on Flickr
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