Eggs—what is the difference between commercial eggs, cage free eggs, and free range eggs?
Commercial– Most of the eggs available in your grocery store are from hens raised and kept in cages. Although they receive a balanced diet to ensure that they are able to lay the maximum number of eggs, the chickens do not receive exercise nor sunshine, but instead are kept in large poultry houses lined with small cages. A drop out chute allows the eggs to pass directly to a catch trough as soon as the hen lays them.
Hens in commercial facilities have relatively short lives. Many believe that their lack of exercise and fresh air and sunshine contribute to a less healthy egg produced.
The eggs are, however, usually lower priced and will be graded according to size. Transport and storage times vary, but retailers attempt to ensure all eggs sold are within the expected expiration date.
Cage free – These hens will be kept in pens or in large barns with varying amounts of space to exercise. Large commercial facilities may be considered cage free, even if the birds have little to no access to the outdoors.
Smaller producers will keep their hens in large coops or in chicken tractors, a movable coop, which allow them access to either inside, or inside-outside provisions. All of their nutrition is still provided for them, but they will generally have more space to exercise.
Looking for a good egg recipe? See our Japanese Egg Roll.
Free range – This term is sometimes used interchangeably with Cage Free, but is technically different. True free range chickens will be kept in large pastures or possibly even freely roaming, though they may be cooped over night for protection. They may or may not receive added feed, but will have some access to natural foods such as grasses, seeds, insects, and other natural foods.
One disadvantage with true free range hens is that their productivity may be less than those kept in smaller coops. Those that enjoy their eggs and watching the healthy hens happily roaming pastures feel the trade off is well worth fewer eggs.
So what is the difference with the egg?
Commercial eggs from caged hens typically have a more fragile shell and often a more yellow or pale yolk, signifying the difference in diet. Although these eggs are certainly filled with nutrients, they are not to the same standard as cage free and free range.
Cage free eggs are the middle choice. The shell is often a bit stronger and the yolks will vary according to the amount of natural diet available. Many feel they are nutritionally superior to the eggs from caged hens.
Eggs from smaller producers of cage free hens will generally have more shell and more orange depth to the color. They are preferred for their generally higher quality over commercially raised eggs.
Free range eggs should have a dark yolk, indicating the difference in various nutrients in the egg, including a higher level of omega 3. While this can be produced by feeding omega 3 supplements such as flax seed, the free range eggs will contain it in steady amounts, along with other nutritional boosts.
To be sure, free range eggs will command a higher price, as the cost to produce each egg is higher. Those that choose free range eggs consider the extra nutrition for them and the better lifestyle for the hens to be worth it.
For more detailed nutritional analysis, see Mother Earth News and gardenbetty