Egg quality: It’s no yolk

Roaming Chicken
A Buff Orpington chicken roams around Brittney Hantak's backyard. Buff Orpingtons can lay about 180 eggs a year. (Hannah J. Farrow/MEDILL)

By Hannah Farrow
Medill Reports

Cartons of eggs range from $1.79 to $7.99 at grocery stores, and they vary from cage-free to organic, brown to white. What do buzzwords like “vegetable-fed” or “free-range” really mean? And what’s worth the extra money?

Learn what you’re getting for the price you’re paying.

Fresh-picked eggs
Fresh-picked eggs from Brittney Hantak’s backyard chickens. Hantak lives with her husband and two children in the Chicago suburbs and says she loves her chickens more than her dogs. (Hannah J. Farrow/MEDILL)

$2 to $4

Known as conventional eggs, they’re collected from hens bred in captivity — up to 200,000 in one barn — with no access to sunlight. Because of their poor living conditions (which equates to high stress), the farmers clip the hens’ beaks to avoid them picking at their own and others’ feathers, said Marie Burcham, the director of domestic policy at the Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog group. “Their lives are brutally short. They’re essentially pushed to lay eggs at an unnatural rate, and as soon as they start to slow down because of their natural clock and how many eggs they have in them, they’re slaughtered.”

  • Terms you’ll see in this price range, and what they mean:.
    • Cage-free: The industry standard used to mean battery cages, where farmers shove thousands of chickens in cages and position them in front of a feeding trough. Cage-free is the same quantity of hens in the same space, just without the cages.
    • Organic: To be labeled organic, the hens must have outdoor access, but industrialized factory farms twist the rules, Burcham said. Farmers use very tiny doors, which makes it look like the chickens can easily go outside, but the birds “have a very strong instinct to avoid predation from above,” Burcham said. “So a small door where they can’t see, they don’t feel protected from above.” And therefore they never leave.
    • Brown: The color of the shell depends solely on the breed of hen. Some strains of chickens lay green, very dark brown, olive and even blue/lavender eggs, Burcham said.
Egg Difference
Brittney Hantak shows the difference in colors of eggs from two different hens. While both eggs are brown, one is lighter than the other, which is how she can tell which chicken it came from. (Hannah J. Farrow/MEDILL)

$4 to $6

The quality of these hens’ lives are better, but depending on the brand, it may not be by much. Eggs overall, however, are “one of the most bioavailable sources of protein you can eat,” said Vicki Retelny, a registered dietitian nutritionist, “meaning that the body, the muscle, really does absorb and utilize that protein from the egg very efficiently.”

  • Terms you’ll see in this price range, and what they mean:
    • Free-range: These hens can’t be in cages and must be able to see the outside. “But in reality, these huge barns can have 200,000 hens,” Burcham said. “The space for the outdoors will be a little concrete porch that can maybe fit five hens.”
    • Vegetable-fed: “Hens are not herbivores,” Burcham said. “They’re omnivores.” So vegetarian-fed chickens mean they’re only eating seed, and aren’t feeding on their natural diet of bugs and insects. Burcham said her hens even eat mice. With a well-rounded diet, the hens lay eggs with more vitamins and omega threes.
Outdoor Chicken
A Silkie chicken runs around in Brittney Hantak’s backyard. (Hannah J. Farrow/MEDILL)

$6 to $8

The most important aspect to determine a high-quality egg from a high-quality chicken is “really superb outdoor access,” Burcham said. Natural foraging, socialization and a happy hen equates directly to the quality of eggs they produce.

  • Terms you’ll see in this price range, and what they mean:
    • Pasture-raised: These hens live natural lives, eat organic feed and feel little stress. They’re also expensive to raise. The farmers collect and wash the eggs by hand, compared to machines used on conventional eggs, Burcham said.

Did you know?

While a deep orange yolk is a quick way to determine hen health, some farmers add cayenne pepper to their hens’ feed to dye the yolk. The best way to tell the quality of an egg is by its taste, not by the color of the yolk, Burcham said.

“You will feel the oils in that yolk more, it will have a more meaty flavor,” Burcham said. “You can also sometimes taste, I don’t want to say bugs, but it tastes more like what you would get from chicken or meat.” A low-quality egg will taste like sulfur.

Photo at top: A Buff Orpington chicken roams around Brittney Hantak’s backyard. Buff Orpingtons can lay about 180 eggs a year. (Hannah J. Farrow/MEDILL)