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Eggs: What Are You Really Getting for the Claim on Your Carton?

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In the last post, I documented the vast health benefits of eggs. What's not as clear, however, is what type of egg is best. Egg cartons are full of enticing terms like "free-range," "cage-free" and "organic." If you find these terms confusing, you're not alone. Last May, the Temple Journal of Science, Technology and Environmental Law questioned whether claims on egg cartons were misleading to consumers. The verdict? They are, causing consumers to pay more for a product that may not offer the perceived health benefits the carton claims.

Terms on egg cartons commonly refer to one of three conditions: What type of food the hen is fed, the environment in which the hen lives and how the hen is treated. Why are these important? In terms of hen food, a 2008 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that when hens were fed with a diet low in omega-6 fatty acids from a young age (meaning they were eating food rich in wheat, barley and milo and low in soy, maize and sunflower, safflower and maize oils), they produced eggs that may cause less oxidative damage to human health.

Concern for hens and their environment inspired the proposed H.R. 3798, Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012, which was introduced to Congress in January.

In the past decade, the United States has seen a surge of farmers' markets (about 3,700 of them) and if you purchase your eggs from a local farm or farmers' market, then you have direct access to the farmer to ask questions about your eggs and the hens that lay them. If you're purchasing eggs from a grocery store, you may need a bit more help. Here's my decoder guide to some of the common terms on egg cartons.

Cage-Free: As the term implies, these hens live uncaged with unlimited access to food and water; however, they may not have access to the outdoors and may still be housed in barns or warehouses. They may be able to engage in many of their natural behaviors like walking, nesting and spreading their wings.

Free-Range: This USDA term is officially meant for meat-producing poultry, and currently there are no standards in "free-range" egg production. Typically, free-range hens, like cage-free hens, remain uncaged indoors with variable outdoor access. Like cage free, hens may be housed in barns or warehouses. Since they are not in cages, these hens may be able to engage in natural behaviors like nesting and foraging. Additionally, there are no restrictions on feed.

Natural: According to the USDA, "natural" refers to a product containing no artificial ingredients or added colors, and is only minimally processed. There are no defined limitations to treatment of animals or the environment in which they reside. This term really does not apply to egg production.

Omega-3 Enriched: Eggs with this label come from hens whose diet was enriched with omega-3 fatty acids, a form of polyunsaturated fat that has been proven to improve overall health. Omega-3 fatty acids are present in flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts and fatty fish. Flaxseed contains ALA, a short chain omega-3 fatty acid which, when consumed, converts to DHA and EPA, long chain omega-3 fatty acids. DHA and EPA (found in salmon, for example) have been clinically proven to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Organic: Under the USDA provisions, products labeled as "organic" must contain only organically-produced ingredients and processing aids (excluding water and salt). To use this label, eggs must come from hens that are given food free of animal byproducts, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and other chemical additives. Additionally, hens must only be given antibiotics if an infection is present. Use of the term "organic" does not apply to living conditions or treatment of hens. A 2010 study found that organic eggs were not healthier than non-organic eggs, despite the higher cost.

Certified Humane: Eggs that carry this label are monitored by a private organization and come from hens that are not caged, but may still reside indoors in environments similar to cage-free and free-range. This organization has higher standards than most for allowing birds to engage in natural behavior (nesting, perching and dust bathing). Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care.

Animal Welfare Approved: Monitored by a private organization, eggs displaying this label come from farms that are audited to ensure hens live in outdoor pastures or ranges and experience humane treatment. These hens live cage-free, and continuous outdoor perching access is required. The label is limited to family farms, so don't expect to see it on a national brand. "Animal welfare approved" is thought to be the highest standard of labeling for eggs in the United States.

Finally, a word on the color of your egg -- it's based on the breed of the hen that laid it, and has very little to do with how healthy it is.

For more by Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D., L.D., click here.

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