Please note, while there are some inherent differences, we understand that budget and accessibility play a huge role in the food choices that you make for your family – and that is absolutely fine. We hope this article is informative and sheds some light on something that can be a bit overwhelming when staring at a wall of egg options in the supermarket!
When purchasing caged eggs, you are purchasing eggs that have been laid by hens who are housed in cages within climate controlled sheds. The introduction of this kind of egg production was a response to the huge increase in demand for eggs over the years, as well as an attempt to reduce the sickness and mortality of the chickens by protecting them from things such as parasites, diseases and the elements.
Each style of farming has pros and cons, but caged eggs have often attracted bad press due to the confinement of the hens and unnatural living conditions which means that they don’t get to explore natural social interactions and behaviours such as nesting. Animal welfare groups do however ensure a strict set of guidelines for the living conditions of each bird and require that they have a minimum of 550cm2 each, however they spend their lives within the sheds and are not given access to outdoor areas at all.
Arguably, cage eggs are the cleanest of the egg varieties as the cages tilt gently backwards so the eggs roll away onto an automatic conveyor belt as soon as they are laid. This reduces the need for egg washing and sanitisation. You will often find that these are the most affordable variety of egg.
CAGE FREE OR BARN LAID EGGS
Cage free and barn-laid eggs are interchangeable terms for the same product. Like cage eggs, these hens will spend their entire lives within large climate controlled sheds, however the difference is they are not confined to cages and are instead free to roam through the shed. This means they have the opportunity to engage in more typical behaviours, but are still unable to go outside. The shed systems in cage free farms are similar to free-range sheds and are usually more than 100m long, 25m wide and contain up to 30,000 hens.
These eggs are typically more expensive than cage eggs, but less expensive than free range.
FREE RANGE EGGS
Free range eggs have increased in demand and as such are becoming more widely available. Free range hens have access to an outdoor range during the day, and are housed securely in sheds overnight. Free range hens will usually lay their eggs inside the shed, where there are specially designed nesting boxes that tilt backwards so that the egg rolls onto a conveyor belt.
In 2018 the law was introduced which stated that eggs labelled as ‘free range’ must come from hens that are able to roam and forage outdoors for at least eight hours each day. You will also find that each farm must state the outdoor stocking density on the egg cartons, with a maximum density of 10,000 hens per hectare, or 1 hen per m2.
PASTURE RAISED EGGS
The difference between free range eggs and pasture raised eggs is that free range hens must have some access to an outdoor range, but they are not required to actually use it. Often farms that have free-range hens will have tens of thousands of birds, so many will choose to stay inside the sheds and are never actually outside, even when technically they can access it. Pasture raised eggs often come from smaller farms where chickens have unlimited access to outdoor pastures. They will also have access to small mobile sheds for sleeping and laying which are moved around the pastures regularly, but the chickens are not confined at any point.
There are many similarities between free-range eggs and organic eggs, however the key difference is that the farmer is unable to use any chemicals on the outdoor range, and the hens must be fed feed that is also organically grown and produced.
There are typically less hens on organic farms as there is strong focus on land and soil regeneration, so the chickens form a part of the eco-system to work with the land. The maximum outdoor stocking density allowed on an organic egg farm is one hen per 4m2 where range rotation is practiced, or one hen per 6m2 where fixed outdoor ranges are used. The hens on organic farms will not be treated with antibiotics or other medications (unless under exceptional circumstances which would result in the unwell hen being separated from the rest of the flock).
When purchasing organic eggs you will note organic certification somewhere on the label. It is also good to keep in mind that all organic eggs will also be free range (some even pasture raised), but not all free range or pasture raised eggs will be organic.
In terms of the nutritional value of the different varieties of eggs, all hens are fed a very similar diet, however free range, pasture raised and organic hens are able to go outside and scratch around in the grass so their consumption of insects and grass seeds may be higher.. They also have the benefit of exposure to sunlight – something else their cage and barn buddies are unable to experience. While some studies suggest that these differences significantly impact the nutritional density of eggs (increase the content of vitamin A, vitamin D, protein and omega-3 fats), other studies imply that these differences are unlikely to affect the consumer (Samir et al. 2009, Küçükyılmaz et al. 2012, Karsten et al. 2010). The vitamin D content of eggs from chickens who have access to outside, however, can produce eggs that are 3-4 x higher in vitamin D compared to those that are housed permanently in barns (Kühn et al. 2014).
If you purchase your eggs directly from a local farm, you may be able to talk with them about the specifics of their feed (some choose to provide no soy, no GMO etc), as well as length of time the chooks spend outside.
ETHICS AND ANIMAL RIGHTS
While animal welfare advocates have set minimum standards for chickens in all settings, if ethical farming and food production is of importance to you and your family, choose eggs from hens that have been raised on pastures with unlimited access to outdoor areas.
Ultimately, eggs are a wonderful nutrient dense food for babies and the whole family. Keep in mind, they are considered to be one of the top allergens so when introducing eggs to your baby for the first time it is important to be mindful of any reactions, as well as offering every few days for at least 3-4 exposures before moving on to the next allergen food. You can read more about introducing allergens and some ideas for offering eggs HERE.
Does your family love eggs? What are your favourite ways to serve them? Let us know in the comments below! x
Kate Holm (Naturopath & Nutritionist)
Luka McCabe (RN/RM/Nutrition Consultant)
Renee Jennings (Dietitian and Nutritionist, APD)
G. Minelli, F. Sirri, E. Folegatti, A. Meluzzi & A. Franchini (2007) Egg quality traits of laying hens reared in organic and conventional systems, Italian Journal of Animal Science, 6:sup1, 728-730, DOI: 10.4081/ijas.2007.1s.728
Samir Samman, Fan Piu Kung, Lissa M. Carter, Meika J. Foster, Zia I. Ahmad, Jenny L. Phuyal, Peter Petocz, Fatty acid composition of certified organic, conventional and omega-3 eggs,
Food Chemistry, Volume 116, Issue 4, 2009, Pages 911-914, ISSN 0308-8146, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2009.03.046.
K. Küçükyılmaz, M. Bozkurt, Ç. Yamaner, M. Çınar, A.U. Çatlı, R. Konak, Effect of an organic and conventional rearing system on the mineral content of hen eggs, Food Chemistry, Volume 132, Issue 2, 2012, Pages 989-992, ISSN 0308-8146, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2011.11.084.
Karsten, H., Patterson, P., Stout, R., & Crews, G. (2010). Vitamins A, E and fatty acid composition of the eggs of caged hens and pastured hens. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 25(1), 45-54. doi:10.1017/S1742170509990214
Kühn J, Schutkowski A, Kluge H, Hirche F, Stangl GI. Free-range farming: a natural alternative to produce vitamin D-enriched eggs. Nutrition. 2014 Apr;30(4):481-4. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2013.10.002. Epub 2013 Oct 14. PMID: 24607306.
Australian Eggs – https://www.australianeggs.org.au/ (accessed 10.11.22)