THE BLOG

Decoding the Secret Language of Egg Cartons

03/06/2015 10:07 am ET | Updated May 06, 2015
CNP Montrose

by Sheela Prakash

Are those eggs really "extra large"? What does an "omega-3" egg have that others don't? Here, we unscramble the jargon.

Shopping for eggs? Better bring a glossary. Egg makers are slapping all manner of industry terms on their cartons, some of them meaningful, some of them not.

But where would you find a glossary of egg carton terms? Right here:

WHITE / BROWN
The color of the shell is simply that: a color. Different breeds of hens lay different colored eggs, most commonly white or brown but also blue, green, or speckled. Shell color isn't an indicator of health or flavor or quality--but brown eggs are a lot better for Instagram.

GRADE A / GRADE AA / GRADE B
Eggs are graded according to USDA guidelines. Grade AA and Grade A are practically interchangeable--they indicate eggs that have thick whites, yolks that are free from defects, and clean shells. Grade B is noticeably different: the whites are thin and the shells are blemished. You'll find Grade A eggs at the grocery store; Grade B is typically reserved for industrial use.

PEEWEE / SMALL / MEDIUM / LARGE / EXTRA LARGE / JUMBO
USDA size standards range from peewee (yes, that's an actual term) to jumbo. Most recipes call for large eggs, which is good, because that's what most grocery stores carry. (Peewees, which are the size of quail eggs, are almost impossible to find). Large eggs weigh about 2 ounces and contain approximately 3 1/4 tablespoons of liquid; extra large eggs weigh about 2.25 ounces and have about 4 tablespoons of liquid. Thus, if a recipe only calls for one or two eggs, you can use the two interchangeably with no serious consequences. (Got a recipe that calls for more than two eggs? Start measuring.)

ALL NATURAL
This term isn't regulated by an agency, so anyone can slap it on their carton and it can mean pretty much whatever the producer wants--there are no standards when it comes to feed, living conditions, or use of antibiotics. In other words, this means nothing. Ignore this.

VEGETARIAN-FED
This means that the chickens were fed a strictly vegetarian diet, which is made up of mostly corn and soybeans. However, this label also suggests that the chickens weren't allowed to spend any time outside, where they would feed on non-vegetarian grub like worms and other little bugs.

FREE RANGE / CAGE-FREE
Free-range means the chickens are not caged and have some access to the outdoors--though there's no way of knowing if the chickens actually go outside and if they do, for how long. Cage-free simply means the hens are not caged, but they remain indoors. However, there's no regulation regarding how much space cage-free chickens actually get.

CERTIFIED ORGANIC
This is the only label that is issued by the USDA. To earn it, eggs must come from free-range chickens that are fed an organic, vegetarian diet.

OMEGA-3
A regular egg has about 30mg of heart healthy omega-3 fatty acid, while an egg with this label is fed a diet enriched with fish oil and flaxseed to have an even higher amount. How much higher? The egg producers aren't required to say, so you'll never know.

CERTIFIED HUMANE
This label is issued by the Human Farm Animal Care. It means that the chickens are cage-free and were raised with certain living conditions (a regulated amount of space, etc).