How to Read Eggs

Egg cartons have become canvasses for a fantastically and purposely complex lexicon. Here’s a guide to the words that are actually worth paying attention to.

Tim Graham / Getty

A growing number of Americans know that almost all eggs come from chickens stacked in crates the size of shoeboxes, too small for the birds to lift their wings or turn around.

That knowledge hasn’t slowed egg sales, but it has led egg purveyors to a new lexicon that’s partly meant to inform and partly meant to mislead and confuse consumers who are trying to feel okay about loving eggs.

Even for people who don’t care at all and are just meandering through life sans ethical infrastructure, it’s tough to miss the words, because they also imply effects on our bodies. The birds and their eggs, like the egg consumers, are what they eat, and the hens ingest opaque mixtures of corn and grains and elements of animals that humans don’t eat.

Some of these egg-carton salvation words, like “natural” and “fresh,” are breathless marketing jargon that play on people’s good intentions and quest for absolution. The eggs do not make the consumer appear or feel natural or fresh.

But some of the carton words can reflect meaningful improvements in the way chicken eggs are harvested. These improvements offer a certain degree of moral sanctuary and, plausibly, a slightly healthier egg, though nutrition is a less compelling argument for investment in expensive eggs. The marginal gain is small compared to, for example, rejecting antibiotic abuse. The latter is a threat not to a consumer’s own body but to the whole human population.

This is an industry that will only change when consumers demand it with their money. So if you find yourself in the egg section of a grocery, particularly in Brooklyn or Oakland or and similarly inflated markets, and you’re considering spending $7.99 on a dozen eggs (seven dollars and 99 cents, pre-tax, no joke, I have seen it with my eyes), it’s worth knowing the vernacular. Print out this list if you like, or bookmark it on your phone, and read it aloud in the egg section so that others can be spared the humiliation of wasting money on eggs––and inadvertently supporting the products that aren’t actually as humane or environmentally conscious as the packages would have us believe.

Here are some of the words I have seen or imagine seeing and what they mean, as best a consumer can know.

Cage Free: The birds aren’t kept in the aforementioned shoebox cages, but they might be shoulder-to-shoulder in a barn. Just because they’re not in a cage doesn’t mean they go outside. There are reports of cannibalism in close-quarter scenarios, in which case some humane-farming advocates have argued that the birds are no better off than if they had cages.

Free Range: Sometimes this means nothing more than cage-free. If Certified Humane Free Range standards are met, free-range hens have access to two square feet of outdoor space. This doesn’t mean they spent all or even much of their time outside, but they should have the opportunity.

Pasture Raised: This isn’t defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but it usually means that the hens have access to more outdoor space than if they were simply “free range” or “cage free.” The birds are raised largely outdoors and may forage for their food, much closer to the children’s-book type image of a farm.

Natural: Nothing. These eggs are not supernatural.

Fresh: Nothing. The package will continue to say this long after the eggs are fresh. The USDA grading system is meant to include freshness in its scoring, with AA being the freshest.

No Hormones: Nothing. Egg hens aren’t given hormones. All eggs are hormone-free.

No Pesticides: Pesticides weren’t used in farming the chicken feed.

No Antibiotics: This is the first term so far on this list that’s important to human health. No eggs themselves should contain antibiotics, but this labeling term means that farmers used no antibiotics in the hens’ feed or water during growing periods or while hens are laying the eggs. There’s little reason to expect these eggs will be healthier for the individual consumer in an immediate sense, but they will be healthier for the world. Antibiotics aren’t a huge part of the egg industry, but buying these eggs could support farmers who are losing some of them to disease in service of the greater idea that antibiotic overuse leads to superbugs that could decimate swaths of the world’s human population. For antibiotic-free animal products in general, an extra dollar is rarely better spent.

Organic: Sometimes nothing.

Certified Organic, or USDA Organic: Cage-free, antibiotic-free, pesticide-free, with access to outdoors and fed only organic feed. The standards for organic eggs was raised just two days before President Obama left office in January, and it now requires a modicum of fresh air and sunlight within the barn. There is some tension between whether a consumer should prioritize pasture-raised or organic, as eggs aren’t necessarily both.

Brown: The shells of the eggs are from a type of hen that lays brown eggs, but there is no substantive difference in the edible material.* There are even chickens in South America that lay green eggs, just like in that book. I can’t speak to the health properties of green eggs, but brown- and white-shelled can be regarded as functionally identical. If someone is trying to make you think that brown eggs are healthier than white eggs (as is actually the case with brown rice versus white rice and whole grains versus refined grains), then this is a manipulative person.

Fertile: These eggs come from a hen that actually mated with a rooster. The USDA claims no nutritional benefit to fertile eggs.

Large: This is the average size for eggs.

Extra large: The average weight per dozen eggs is 27 ounces. This means that a carton of a dozen eggs could have one comically tiny egg and still be legally considered extra large. Or 11 small eggs and one enormous egg, as long as the average is at least 27 ounces. Then at a party, for example, you could say to a friend, “Look at this extra-large egg.” Your friend could say, “That looks like a small egg, to me.” And you could say, “Well, you’re wrong.” Conversation started. It’s that easy.

Jumbo: Even bigger.

Whoa: So big they might not be chicken eggs. But then what else would they be? This isn’t an actual label term, but I bet there’s a market for it.

Vegetarian-fed hens: There were no animal parts in the chicken feed, and, more tellingly, the hens did not spend time foraging in a pasture.

Omega-3: The birds ate at least a little bit of something that contains omega-3 fatty acids, which are generally considered to be a healthy nutrient when taken as part of a healthy lifestyle. But this feeding process isn’t guaranteed to manifest as higher levels of omega-3 in the eggs themselves. If you’re looking for omega-3 fatty acids, consider eating something other than eggs.

No GMOs: This label is increasingly common despite oblique relevance. Farmers have used selective breeding to make chickens that have enormous breasts—too large to even walk—and to grow quickly and to produce many eggs, some of them Jumbo. But none of this has been accomplished using “genetic modification” in the sense that people tend to object to when they say they’re avoiding “GMO.” That typically refers to organisms whose genes have been modified in a lab. That is the place where some people draw an ethical line. In any case, when you see GMO on a carton of eggs, it’s referring to the things the chickens were fed, meaning that no genes were added or removed from the elements of the feed that the chickens ate. There is no evidence to suggest that this would make for a better or healthier chicken egg.

Dangerous: All-encompassing term, but generally avoid if you see this. Even if the eggs are very cheap or even free.

Excitatory!: These eggs may contain stimulants. I’ve never seen this but if I did that’s all I could take it to mean.

Egg Beaters: These are yellow-colored egg whites that are sold in a carton. The product has always puzzled me because it’s marketed in turns both as an “egg substitute” and “made from real eggs.”

Frozen Pancakes: These aren’t eggs at all, they’re frozen pancakes. The eggs are probably behind you or in another aisle.

Finally, the package on which these words are printed is also important. Egg cartons aren’t just cardboard, but plastic and styrofoam. The latter containers may negate any of the purchased absolution, no matter how many of the phrases above are printed on the cartons, no matter how large the font, or green the pastures in the graphics, or how badly the consumer wants to believe that everything is going to be okay.

*This article originally misstated that there is a relationship between the color of egg shells and the color of hen feathers. We regret the error.