Unless you have a chicken coop in your own backyard, one time or another you've probably spent time staring at the vast display of eggs at the supermarket, wondering what to buy. If you've been confused and ended up leaving with the cheapest carton, you're not alone.
Those egg labels are complicated to understand, to say the least, and many cartons carry so many different labels that it's hard to know how they relate at all. But there is a big difference between the conventional eggs that sell for $1.69 and the certified organic eggs that sell for $4.99 -- it's a lot to do with how the chickens are handled (abused vs. humanely treated). You may not want to pay up for the organic eggs, but once you realize what goes into producing those eggs, you will.
We're helping you decode all those labels so you can get to the bottom of what each one means -- we've made it easy for you by pointing out the recommended ones. See the slideshow below for the label definitions.
Cage-Free -- Not Regulated
Cage-free means the hens are uncaged, but it doesn't mean they're free-range or roaming in the great outdoors. The hens are actually held inside a barn or warehouse where they can do pretty much as the please, but the living conditions can vary greatly.<br> <br> Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/75001512@N00/2480673724/" target="_hplink">Joelk75, Flickr</a>.
Omega-3 -- Recommended (Not Regulated)
Omega-3 labeling means the hens were fed fish oil or flaxseed, but there is no way of knowing the amount since it isn't regulated.<br> <br> Photo from <a href="http://www.confessionsofadietitian.com/2011/11/does-omega-3-make-it-better-egg.html" target="_hplink">Confessions of a Dietitian</a>.
United Egg Producers Certified -- Not Recommended (Regulated)
Most major producers comply with this voluntary program. <a href="http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/facts/uep_certified_logo.html" target="_hplink">Unfortunately this certification permits routine cruel and inhumane farm practices and caging</a>. This is the worst, most misleading certification in that regard.
Vegetarian -- Recommended (Not Regulated)
Hens are fed an all-vegetarian diet free of any animal by-products. It's a superfluous label if the eggs you're buying are certified organic.<br> <br> Photo from <a href="http://www.furinsider.com/exposed-fur-the-environmentally-friendly-fiber/" target="_hplink">FurInsider.com</a>
Natural -- Not Regulated
There are no regulations for the term "natural." Any producer can put this label on their eggs -- it has no meaning.<br> <br> Photo from <a href="http://dellysdeals.blogspot.com/2012/03/dont-forget-your-49-all-natural-eggs.html" target="_hplink">Delly's Deals</a>.
Free-Range -- Not Regulated
Free-range means the hens are uncaged and have some access to the outdoors from the barn or warehouse, but since this term is not certified by the USDA there is no way of knowing how long those hens actually do spend outside.<br> <br> Photo from <a href="http://www.rahalfarm.com/farm_fresh_eggs.php" target="_hplink">Rahal Farms</a>.
No Antibiotics/No Hormones -- Not Regulated
The label "no antibiotics" or "antibiotic free" is superfluous if the eggs are Certified Organic, Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane or Food Alliance Certified. In any other case it's hard to know the validity of the claim since it would't have been regulated.<br> <br> All eggs have been free of hormones since the practice of using hormones in poultry was banned in the 1960s -- it's a redundant label.<br> <br> Photo from <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/shockinglytasty/5090925601/" target="_hplink">Shockingly Tasty, Flickr</a>.
Certified Organic -- Highly Recommended (Regulated)
Organic eggs must come from chickens that are uncaged and have some access to the outdoors, even if limited. The hens are fed an organic vegetarian diet free of animal by-products, pesticides and genetically modified food as regulated by the USDA.<br> <br> Photo from <a href="http://www.livinginiowa.net/2010/11/52-recipe-log-4-spinach-breakfast-wrap.html" target="_hplink">Living in Iowa</a>.
Certified Humane -- Recommended (Regulated)
<a href="http://www.certifiedhumane.org/uploads/pdf/Standards/English/Std09.Layers.2J.pdf" target="_hplink">Certified Humane</a> means the hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses but are typically kept indoors (the animal care standards do not require hens to have free-range access). The hens are allowed to engage in natural activities (nesting, perching, dust-bathing) and are given space to do so (stocking density is regulated). Also no antibiotics or hormones are administered. Beak cutting is allowed. <em>This slide had been edited to clarify that the certified humane hens are not necessarily kept indoors in all cases.</em>
Animal Welfare Approved -- Highly Recommended (Regulated)
The Animal Welfare Approved labeling is limited to family farms. <a href="http://www.animalwelfareapproved.org/standards/layinghens-2012/" target="_hplink">It is one of the highest animal welfare standards.</a> Hens have continual access to pasture and to shelter. They are also provided with vegetarian feed. No antibiotics are used for egg-laying hens. Beak cutting is not allowed.
Food Alliance Certified -- Recommended (Regulated)
<a href="http://foodalliance.org/poultry" target="_hplink">Food Alliance certification</a> means hens are uncaged and have access to outdoors. They are allowed to engage in natural behavior and there are specific requirements as to stocking density and space. But beak cutting is allowed.
American Humane Certified -- Not Recommended (Regulated)
<a href="http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/facts/guide_egg_labels.html" target="_hplink">American Humane certification</a> allows for both cage confinement and cage-free systems. But there's no way of knowing whether the eggs you're buying come from cage-free or caged hens. Caged hens are confined to a space of no larger than a legal-sized sheet of paper. Beak cutting is not allowed.
WATCH: How To Interpret The New Egg Carton Labels
It used to be our choices were brown eggs or white eggs, small, medium or extra large. Now there are many other factors to consider when buying eggs. Cynthia Sass, Nutrition Director of Prevention Magazine, explains the new labels for egg cartons.
Main photo from akeg, Flickr.