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Understanding Egg and Poultry Labels: Commercial Versus Pasture-Raised

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There is an astounding variety of eggs available in grocery stores and health food stores. With egg and other food recalls, the consumer eye is becoming more watchful and discerning – as well it should.

If you purchase eggs and poultry from the grocery store, you will see a variety of terms on the packages:  “organic”, “free-range”, or “cage-free”. It’s important to note that most of these are just marketing terms that are there to sell the product. I believe this is evident since nearly every time I go to the egg section of my health food store, many of the local and pasture-raised eggs are usually sold out. And what’s left are cartons and cartons of eggs from large producers. These producers raise chickens in ways you’d really rather they didn’t. Especially if you knew the details.

What’s the big deal?

It’s not just for flavor that you ought to be aware of the differences between conventional eggs and poultry. Problems with conventional food are becoming more and more acute with each passing day. Consuming these foods, claimed by many from politicians to government officials to come from “the safest food system in the world”, can actually be hazardous to your health. And yet, if our food system is so safe, why do we continue to see food recalls and increasing rates of chronic disease? It seems obvious that this is a way to protect the interests of a multi-billion dollar corporations in all industries by leaders in agribusiness, government, and politics – as well as conceal how faulty practices which are now becoming apparent to the consumer are failing – and losing the confidence of many.

The same can be said for poultry. There are many brands of chicken and turkey on the shelf and being mindful about what you buy is becoming more and more important. Label reading and research into the practices of the producers is paramount. See this article on Questions to Ask Your Farmer

In the American markets (and many other developed countries), poultry birds live in industrial housing and facilities that don’t allow for expression of natural behavior or existence. What’s more, many of them consume harmful chemicals and toxic feed – genetically- modified soy, grain, corn, silage, meat parts, etc. This means the majority of eggs and poultry you purchase are not worth the money you spend and would invariably fall into this category.

Even a “designer” carton of eggs that costs $4 or $5 a carton labeled organic is probably not what you think it is. Maybe you can’t believe anyone could spend that much on a container, and instead you’ve been buying eggs at the grocery chain store that cost $1.89 a dozen. This may seem like a bargain.  But the truth is, neither variety of eggs is a good choice. Read more about why cheap food is not really cheap here

How could that be the case? The main factor in a healthy egg is not how expensive it is, the fact that the eggs or brown, or that the label reads “free-range” or “organic”.

Here are the ways to tell what label terms mean and how you know if you are getting an egg or chicken meat that is worth the money you are paying for it:

Organic

This label only refers to the feed source of the chicken – free from harmful chemicals. It also means that no pesticides are used on the premises nor antibiotics are administered to the birds. But it is no guarantee of a life free of industrial hen-housing. The term “organic” does not describe how they are raised or whether they have access to pasture. Many organic chickens and turkeys consume feed that can translate to poor nutrition in the meat and eggs – soy, grain, and corn. This type of feed causes the product you are eating from the bird to have too many Omega 6s, and leads to inflammation and disease in the body.

Vegetarian-fed

Many people imagine chicken eating grains as a bulk of their diet – and they can and do eat grains in nature, but not a large amount. Chickens and turkeys need nutrients from protein when eating grubs, worms, insects, and other creatures, as well as plants like grass and fresh seeds – which they can only get out in the open and by having access to pasture or grass.

“Vegetarian-fed” usually means the majority of what chickens eat is grain, corn, soy, and other things like flaxseed – which is mistakenly believed to impart the elusive Omega 3 so many people are lacking in their diets, but actually doesn’t translate the same way as a diet on pasture would. The things that provide Omega 3s in the diet of chickens are being out in the sunshine, digging in the dirt, and eating the things nature intended.

Cage-free

A fantastic marketing label, but totally meaningless. Chickens may be cage-free, but the term implies they are also free to roam. The dismal reality is that are likely confined to a chicken house which barely ever sees the natural light of day, and fails to provide natural soil, grass, and plants for chickens to eat. At best, these chickens might have temporary (maybe only as long as 1 hour daily) access to an outside fenced area on cement or bare dirt. Sorry Charlie, this gets a failing grade.

Free-range

Another slick marketing term that gives you the idea the chickens are roaming around, free and happy. Like many others, this term has been used over and over again by store employees – so much so that you will hear many an uninformed consumer using it as well – but due to no fault of their own.

Many of these chickens have so-called “access” to outdoor areas (again, bare dirt or cement), but there’s no guarantee they actually make it there. This term is the most commonly mistaken of all terms to mean “on pasture”. But it doesn’t mean that in the slightest. The legal requirement for these terms is merely that the chickens have a small patch of dirt or concrete, much like “cage-free”.

Here is a list of feed ingredients in a caged hen’s diet, from Mother Earth News:

(Feed ingredients list from “16 percent Layer Crumbles,” a feed designed for hens raised in confinement: “Grain Products, Plant Protein Products, Processed Grain Byproducts, Roughage Products, Forage Products [in other words, could contain pretty much anything! — Mother], Vitamin A Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Vitamin E Supplement, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Riboflavin Supplement, Niacin Supplement, Calcium Pantothenate, Choline Chloride, Folic Acid, Manadione Sodium Bisulfite Complex, Methionine Supplement, Calcium Carbonate, Salt, Manganous Oxide, Ferrous Sulfate, Copper Chloride, Zinc Oxide, Ethylenediamine Dihydriodide, Sodium Selenite.”

Pastured

There are three types of pastured poultry:

  • Those kept in movable, floor-less “tractors” with perpetual access to grass. The tractors should be moved daily to give the chickens rotation and opportunity to new ground without built-up chicken excrement.
  • Free access to green pastures with movable electric fences to keep predators away.
  • A fence-less pastured area, which is best for the chickens. The farmer must keep a more watchful eye on the chickens this way, as they would be vulnerable to predators and mishaps.

Another important consideration is what type of birds your eggs and meat are coming from. If you talk to the farmer, you’ll want to make sure the chickens are some type of heritage or heirloom breed. The cornish-game cross so ubiquitous in the American market have been bred and bred over time such that their constitution and health has become compromised. They are more susceptible to health issues and disease. Also, many of the heritage breeds are becoming more rare, and supporting farmers who raise these types of birds will go a long way toward preserving these varieties.

Read this informative article about the farming of older, heritage breeds of poultry and the advantages over conventional – Consider Raising Heritage Breed Poultry for Meat and Eggs.

Nutrition: what’s in an egg? You can tell by the yolk color

A study from Penn State reveals that increased nutritional value is present in eggs of pastured hens: higher levels of Vitamins A, E, and beneficial fatty acids were observed in pastured hens as compared to those raised in confinement in a factory environment. 

When you bring your eggs home and crack one open, there should be a bright orange yolk greeting you inside the shell. The darker the egg yolk color, the more likely the nutritional content is more robust. This is because of the exposure to sunlight causes the presence of the following nutrients: beta carotene, lutein and xanthophylls. The yolk will be a brilliant color because of all the wonderful nutrients from chickens raised outside on pasture, in the sunshine, and open air. Conventional eggs will be pale and quite dull in color, by comparison. Read more here.

Chickens on pasture also have Vitamins A, B, D, E, and K in their meat and eggs – the same cannot be said for factory farmed and conventional eggs and poultry meat. Eggs from pastured hens are a rich source of choline, a nutrient essential in maintenance of cardiovascular and nervous system function. Various studies have been conducted on the nutritional value of an egg from pastured as compared to conventional, but one in particular stands out is the Egg Project undertaken by Mother Earth News in 2007.

(Source: Pathways to Family Wellness,  Issue #27, Jeanne Ohm, DC.)

Eggs from pastured hens are worth the extra expense!

Even at $4 -5 a dozen for local, pastured eggs, this is a bargain price. The reason is because spending that $1.89 for the other variety is getting you really not much nutrition at all, and is probably adding in toxic substances that could be harmful to your health such as antibiotics, pesticides, or genetically-modified substances from the feed the birds eat. Those eggs are also higher in Omega 6s which leads to inflammation and illness in the body – as opposed to the rich source of Omega 3s available in eggs from hens on pasture without antibiotics and chemicals.

Where can I find pastured poultry and eggs?

The two best places to find eggs and poultry from pastured chickens is at your local farmer’s market or direct from the farmer. At our local health food store, they also sell a constant offering of at least three or four local eggs from chickens on pasture. If you are in doubt, ask the farmer or the store employee about the farming practices. Don’t be shy. These people are usually helpful and accustomed to being asked questions about the food they sell.  And, your health depends on it! Don’t be afraid to ask your farmer questions about their growing and raising practices

HealthMade Team

HealthMade Team

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