It’s no secret that “free range” or “pasture raised” and organic eggs can be two, three or even four times as expensive as conventional eggs. It’s not uncommon to see free range eggs ranging from $6 – $10/dozen. There is a reason for that. It comes down to three things; nutrient density, the hens’ diet and ethical peace of mind; how you feel about animal welfare.
Pastured Chicken Egg Nutrition
Eggs are probably among the best source of animal protein. Egg whites contain a lot of the amino acids while the yolk is rich with vitamins, minerals, fats and the all-important cholesterol.
According to a study from 2007 Mother Earth News egg testing project, conventional store bought eggs are nutritionally inferior to pastured eggs. Compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain:
- 2⁄3 more vitamin A
- 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
- 3 times more vitamin E
- 7 times more beta carotene
- 4–6 times more vitamin D
Mass Egg Production
We eat a lot of eggs in North America. In the United States alone, more than 285 million hens lay over 83 billion eggs a year. In order to meet the demand, an industrial system of mass production is necessary. We’re not arguing with that.
The issue is, in this industrialized system, most conventional hens are housed in battery cages that are slightly larger than a shoebox. This means a hen will typically live her whole life without sunlight and a chance to stretch her wings and never able to do chicken-like things such as eating, bugs, scratching in the dirt or even eating fresh, growing greenery.
The feed in an industrial production system is usually a pelleted mixture of industrially grown grains and genetically modified oilseeds such as soybean and canola. It is often mixed with an antibiotic and other medications to “prevent” disease.
Recently, major restaurant chains and retailers have committed to moving to buying and selling only “cage-free” eggs to appeal to consumers who are in search of something better than the tainted brand of “conventional industrial” egg production. These newer egg production corporations are shelling out the extra cost to house hens in what are called aviaries, where rows of hens are stuck in close quarters stacked in massive barns. And while yes, the conditions may seem dramatically better, there are still major problems with this. And this doesn’t even touch the problem with the feed that these chickens eat.
One issue is, since hens are free to move around more in aviaries and they are still jammed together, crowded, as as a result disease and mortality rates tend to increase. More ammonia concentrations, dust levels and particulate matter emissions increase in these conditions which makes the environment dangerous for workers.
In essence, going cage-free hasn’t really made anything healthier for the chicken, the employees or for the consumer who wants a better quality egg. What it comes down to is marketing. Big corporations are responding to public trends and demand while doing all they can to keep the profits flowing. And we really can’t fault them for trying. But there is something we can do.
Organic or Not?
Some people feel that purchasing Organically Labelled eggs is the answer. Although it does ensure that the laying hens in certified organic facilities are fed non-gmo and certified organic feed, it does not mean that the chicken was raised in a facility that allows the chicken to act like a chicken or to eat it’s natural diet.
Paying for Peace of Mind
Understanding where our eggs come from has sparked a movement of discerning consumers that are willing to pay for truly free range eggs. There are obvious health benefits to the individual, and economic benefits to the farmer that chooses to produce eggs in the most ethical manner. But peace of mind is often just as important and the extra cost to attain it are worth every penny.
Sometimes, you just have to put the chicken before the egg. But even if you put the egg first and look for nutrient density – the way nature intended wins that argument too.
Paying for Nutrient Density
Production practices and the chicken feed has a significant impact on the nutrients within each egg. Studies show that pastured eggs are richer in vitamins A and E, as well as omega-3s. Hens that get to spend time in the sun also lay eggs that contain significantly more vitamin D.
The levels of these nutrients can often be double or tripe in pastured eggs vs conventionally produced eggs. Add the welfare of the birds and the positive impact on the land and you’ve got value that can easily justify a price that’s double or even triple that of conventionally produced eggs.
Looking for Free Range Eggs?
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