One of the things we’ve missed most since we started traveling just over a year ago is our own flock of backyard chickens. When we decided to set off on our big trip, we sent our six ladies up to live on a farm in Weld County (thanks, Tammy and Chris!), and we still get eggs from that farm occasionally. We’re really looking forward to keeping laying hens again once we find Quiet Farm.
I consider eggs to be one of the world’s most perfect complete foods. They were vilified for so long – remember when we all only ate egg-white omelettes and entire boxes of Snackwell’s fat-free cookies? – but more and more evidence demonstrates that quality eggs are an essential component of a healthy diet. They’re loaded with good fat, protein, vitamins and minerals, and the whole “eggs cause high cholesterol” myth has thankfully been debunked. (Our bodies produce the vast majority of our own cholesterol; what we eat has little impact on our cholesterol levels, though what we eat has a massive impact on every other aspect of our health.) The key, as with every other animal product, is to purchase the best eggs you can. And this is of course so much more difficult than it seems, because what are the best eggs?
Just a tiny corner of the egg section at our grocery store.
We no longer purchase supermarket eggs; we buy them from local feed stores, where backyard chicken keepers sell their excess, or we get them from farms we volunteer on, or from friends with flocks. (In the winter, natural egg production slows down dramatically; eggs are a symbol of spring and rebirth because poultry start laying again when the days get longer.) Recently I found myself staring at the egg case at our grocery store, and I understood completely why people find food shopping so overwhelming – especially if you care about animal welfare, the environment and/or your own health. How in the world are you supposed to know which is best?
The answer in this case is none of the above, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s revisit and debunk a few egg myths, shall we?
- There is no difference in nutrition or flavor between white and brown-shelled eggs. Shell color is determined by the breed of chicken and nothing else. Egg producers and grocery stores figured out that customers think brown eggs are better, so they charge more. And we pay it. Many small farmers keep Araucanas or other “Easter Eggers,” because they lay turquoise, pale blue or seafoam green eggs, and they charge a premium for these eggs. Gorgeous, to be sure, but no nutritional benefit.
- Very few words on egg labels are regulated. Natural, free-range, pastured, cage-free, farm-fresh? These mean nothing, and egg producers can use them on any carton. The only labels that are regulated are organic and non-GMO, and even those are sketchy (you get to hire your own inspector!). And if there is any sort of pastoral farm scene with a red barn and a white picket fence, you know for certain those hens lived in a crowded, artificially-lit warehouse.
The mouse may have been vegetarian, but the chicken certainly isn’t.
- Chickens are NOT vegetarians. If you see “vegetarian-fed” on an egg label, you know for an absolute fact that those hens never had outdoor access. Chickens are omnivores, like humans, and they’ll gladly eat bugs, worms and mice. They’re foragers, which is one reason gardeners love them – they keep the pest population under control. “Vegetarian-fed” simply means “these chickens never foraged because they lived inside for their entire miserable lives.”
Unrefrigerated eggs in a German supermarket.
- American eggs are kept refrigerated, while those in most of the rest of the world aren’t. When eggs are laid, they’re coated with a natural protective bacteria. The USDA requires commercial egg production facilities to wash and sanitize (i.e. bleach) all eggs, which removes this protective coating and hastens their deterioration – hence the need for refrigeration. This is because the factory farming system in this country produces decidedly filthy eggs, and the USDA has decided that washing the eggs is better than potential foodborne illness. If you buy eggs from a neighbor or local farm, store them unwashed in the refrigerator. This will extend their shelf life; wash the eggs just before you crack them.
- Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels.
- Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels.
- Eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels.
(I will keep repeating this until everyone in the world knows it to be true.)
- Eggs from true free-range flocks are nutritionally superior. They’ve been repeatedly shown to have higher levels of omega-3s, plus more vitamins A, D and E. Plus, they’re actually lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, even though we all know that eating eggs does not increase cholesterol levels, right?
- Laying hens have the worst lives of any factory-farmed animals. They spend their entire lives in a space less than the size of a standard sheet of paper, and they cannot perform any of their natural activities, including preening and dust-bathing. They cannot even flap their wings. Thankfully, their lives are mercifully short, about eighteen months (compared to a natural life expectancy of eight to twelve years).
Back to our original question: which of these eggs are best? Friends, we like to deliver truth here at Finding Quiet Farm. And the truth is, if a certain egg production facility is big enough to appear on the shelves of your grocery store, they’re almost certainly a battery operation. Major supermarket corporations need a guaranteed quantity of eggs delivered on a reliable schedule, and anyone who has kept chickens knows that true free-range poultry cannot be counted on to do anything reliably, except escape from their fenced area. So these operations that sell eggs to your store are large enough that their hens can’t be free-range, but because those labels aren’t regulated, you can’t do anything about it.
And please remember: just because those eggs are “organic,” it doesn’t mean the birds had a good life. Battery hens can be fed certified organic feed so that their eggs are worth more to the customer, but the hens still lived a horrific existence. Organic means nothing when it comes to an animal’s quality of life. It simply means that no pesticides were used in their feed.
What’s the answer? If you’re going to spend money on good food, upgrade your eggs first. Find someone with backyard chickens, or buy from a local farm. Lots of small, local farms keep poultry flocks, or they know someone who does. Or get your own backyard flock! Remember, you vote every time you spend money, and cheap eggs aren’t good for chickens, the environment, or your health. All of these are worth the extra pennies.
11 thoughts on “The FAQ Series: Eggs”
Our araucanas were selected because they were so quiet, which was important when we lived in town. There are none at the farm. I really do not like all the fancy trendy breeds. We have a few that came here in need of a new home, but the selected ones are Rhode Island Reds.
Thanks for reading, Tony. Keeping chickens in an urban area means quiet ones definitely have some value! We kept a variety of breeds, but our Rhode Island Reds and Australorps seemed to be the loudest. I’m looking forward to moving to a rural area where everyone has chickens!
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Rhode Island Reds were loudest?! Oh my. Mine were not bad. I do not mind the noise. There was no one else around to hear it. There are wild turkeys at work, and they are horrid! The gobbling is no problem, but the screaming is wicked!
Thank you so much for this information Elizabeth!!! I really appreciate your emails each week. I do buy “pasture-raised eggs” from the grocery store in hopes they are more nutritious than the cheaper eggs. I will certainly start searching for a local farm. xoxo Chris
Thank you, Chris!
THANK YOU for trying to debunk the cholesterol myth. The problem still lies in the fact that so many people have this thought hard wired in their brain. Similar to thinking that eating fat makes people fat. No, lack of exercise, too much sugar and processed food and overall lifestyle makes us fat. Not one type of food or macronutrient. Since eating your chickens’ eggs, we are converts and happily participate in an egg share that I hope continues for years to come. Such a difference in taste and I actually think my small children notice too.
There is so much misinformation out there, especially regarding diet and nutrition. The dietary cholesterol link is a big one! I’d love for people to stop chasing the next trend and just concentrate on eating a whole-food diet. Or as the great Michael Pollan says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Thanks for reading, Sara!
Hi Libby, thanks again for another interesting and informative post. It occurred to me once that the new trend of brown eggs being in favor might have to do with cross pollination of the notion that white bread, white pasta, etc was bad for you and that brown bread, brown pasta, etc (meaning whole wheat of course) was better for you. I might be wrong but people are so impressionable and illogical sometimes that I might not be wrong on this one.
I have loved eggs my whole life, but in past couple of months everytime I ate eggs my stomach would hurt, so I’ve regretfully stopped eating them (trace amounts in recipes do not seem to bother me at all). I wonder if I got some farm fresh eggs locally if I would have a better reaction? I might try this. Do you know of any places in north Denver where fresh eggs can be bought?
Kelly, your point about brown vs. white “nutrients” is a good one – I didn’t even think of that! Eggs are definitely a known allergen, but buying them fresh and local might help with your reaction. Try Isabelle Farm, Ollin Farms or Cure Organic Farm, all in the Boulder County area. Their farm stands usually carry eggs on a pretty regular basis.
Thank you I will look up those farms and give this a try – I miss my eggs! And with Easter coming no less, I am sad not to be making my egg salad for sandwiches – doesn’t feel like spring without egg salad to me.
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