A few summers ago, on my annual visit to my native country, Russia, I was standing in my family's kitchen staring at an egg I had just cracked over the frying pan. The yolk was a pleasant: deep rich color, and the egg itself appeared smaller than I was used to seeing in stores in America.
I asked my mom where she had bought the eggs and the answer, while totally normal for Russia, had surprised my now Americanized heart. My mom picked up the eggs from an old lady who was selling them on the side of the road.
In suburban Russia, people (mostly retirees) will sell fruits and vegetables, eggs and homemade dairy products straight from their backyards. On the way home from work or on the weekends, Russians regularly buy goods from these make-shift grocery stands, because it's easy, inexpensive and (as I was coming to find out) much healthier than shopping at a supermarket.
With my interest piqued, I examined some of the produce in our fridge. I observed strawberries with their imperfect shapes and fragrant smells, small and deeply green cucumbers and apples with leaves still on their stems. They all seemed different from their store-bought counterparts.
I already knew the reason for my produce disparity was the absence of GMOs and harsh pesticides, but what about the pretty little Russian egg?
When it comes to eggs, there seems to be a slew of choices. A quick scan of the egg section at a super market will show options like “organic, free range, free range organic, pasture raised, cage free, all natural and grade A.”
What does all of this mean? What is the better option to buy? Let's take a look.
Grade A Eggs
There is a system put in place by USDA that separates eggs into three grades: AA, A and B. While grading the eggs, the interior and exterior quality is measured. Things like shape, thickness of the outer shell and definition of the yolk are taken into account.
Most store-bought eggs are rated A. B grade eggs do not get sold in stores, but do get used in products that use eggs, as well as for egg powders. However, this doesn't have much to do with the quality of the egg, outside of its appearance. Eggs that are the proper shape, thickness and proportion get cleared for sale in stores and given a grade A stamp.
You might be tempted to reach for a product that's labeled all natural because the term seems to suggests absence of pesticides, GMOs and other alterations. In some countries, labeling is strictly reinforced and there is a clear set of rules a company needs to follow in order to be allowed to call their product all natural.
In the US, the laws are less strict and, according to USDA, the term natural may only guarantee that “the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances." Natural doesn't guarantee that the product has not been genetically modified, treated with harsh pesticides or is organic, unless otherwise stated. For instance, a tomato injected with scorpion DNA to ward off pests is still considered all natural.
USDA states that to be labeled Free Range “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” This only applies to poultry itself, of course, and not to the eggs.
At this time, there are no legal definitions of what free range eggs mean. Free range poultry has to have unrestricted access to outside, and not be kept exclusively indoors. There are no clarifications of what that outside area must look like.
It could be just gravel, or dirt. There are no minimum space requirements, so it could be possible that the chickens are packed in a small square of dirt. It's hardly similar to a picture of a farm with chickens running freely on farmland, which some people might understandably envision when seeing the phrase “free range.”
In Order to comply with USDA's organic requirements, organic eggs must come from chickens that were fed organic feed, not given antibiotics (unless used to treat infection), allowed outside and raised with the basis of animal welfare standard. In some cases, overcrowding and limited space results in cannibalism.
Beak trimming, or partial removal of the beak, has been used to stop chickens from attacking each other. American Organic Standards currently allow beak trimming.
HFAC's Certified Humane® Free Range requires that the chickens have 2 sq. ft. per bird. They must be allowed outside for no less than six hours.
HFAC's Certified Humane® Pasture Raised was created to replace what “free range” was originally meant to accomplish. In this category, chickens must have 108 sq. ft. per chicken. The chickens must be outside at all times, with a mobile or fixed housing where they can go at night. They are not to exceed two weeks per year in said fixed housing.
According to Certified Humane's official website “Currently, there are already three “Pasture Raised” egg companies on the program: Vital Farms (Austin, TX), White Oak Pastures (Bluffton, GA) and Ayrshire Farm (Upperville, VA). The only 100 percent “free range” company to be on the program, so far, is Happy Egg Company (San Francisco, CA).”
So what's the best option?
The verdict is, if you can get your hands on Certified Humane Pasture Raised Organic eggs, those would be the best eggs out on the market right now. I found them sold at Whole Foods. They can also be found at Albertsons, The Fresh Market, Ralphs and Target.
I conducted a bit of my own at-home exploration. I bought a regular white grade A egg, an organic egg and a pasture raised organic egg. Upon cracking all three into a bowl, I saw that the pasture raised organic egg had the deepest colored yolk, followed by the organic egg, and then the regular white egg had the lightest yolk.
I observed a similar pattern in cooking time. The pasture raised organic eggs cooked the quickest, followed by the organic egg and the white grade A egg took the longest. When it came to taste, the pasture raised organic egg had a deeper flavor, very closely followed by the organic egg. The white grade A egg lacked the oaky warm flavor the other two eggs shared.
Whatever choice you make in regard to buying eggs or any other food is personal. Factors like availability and cost can play a part. But the important thing is that you do have the ability to choose, and making an informed decision is key. I've never met an egg that didn't go well with my Sunday mimosa at brunch with girlfriends, but when it comes to stocking my own fridge, I now have a better idea of what to put in my grocery basket.