Have you noticed how much stuff egg cartons have squished onto their labels? Free-range! Organic! Vegetarian! What the heck does it all actually mean? More importantly, what should you actually choose? Consider this your ultimate explainer. Here are the most common labels you’ll see stamped on your carton and what they actually mean. Once you understand the lingo, you’ll be able to shop with confidence.
Large vs. Extra Large
Egg size has nothing to do with quality. Chickens simply lay different size eggs at different stages in their egg-laying life. The USDA has set guidelines to label them based on egg weight, from peewee to jumbo, though you’ll most likely see medium, large, extra large, and jumbo at the grocery store. Large is by far the most common size and what’s called for in most recipes.
Eggs are graded by quality as it relates to freshness and exterior and interior appearances at the time of packing. The highest grade is AA, which are the freshest and best-looking, followed closely behind by grade A. Grade B eggs are older and their appearance can include some stained or misshapen sells and thin whites and yolks. Are three are perfectly safe to eat. You won’t see B very often at the grocery store but if you do, they’ll be cheaper, and they’re totally fine to use in baking or frittatas. For a pretty fried egg, though, it’s best to always go for A or AA.
Brown vs. White
It’s a complete myth that brown eggs are more nutritious than white eggs so you can ignore any label denoting color. Different chickens lay different colored eggs — it’s as simple as that. So don’t be swayed into thinking you’re getting more because the eggs are brown. What’s more important is below.
Chickens are naturally omnivores so this label isn’t actually a great one. This means they’ve only been given vegetarian feed, most likely grains like corn and soy, and may not have been allowed to roam freely enough to pick on the little bugs and worms they not only love to eat, but are essential for their health.
No Antibiotics or No Hormones
Egg-laying chickens are rarely treated with antibiotics or hormones. So while all these labels is factually true, it’s not really necessary to state it. However, if the label is referring to the feed the chickens are given, antibiotic- and hormone-free is a good thing.
The feed the chickens are given is free of GMOs. Eggs can be non-GMO and not be organic. If the carton only states the former and not the latter, the feed is free of GMOs but conventional.
This label is regulated by the USDA and means the chickens are fed 100% organic feed that’s free of GMOs, toxic chemicals, and pesticides.
The chickens aren’t in cages but that doesn’t necessarily mean much. They could be kept in an over-crowded facility, on top of each other, and never be let outside. So this label isn’t an indicator of happy hens.
One step up from cage-free, free-range eggs come from chickens who aren’t in cages and do have access to the outdoors but the access is limited. Depending on the farm, some chickens could have as little as two square feet of outdoor space for only a short time and grazing on things like grass isn’t guaranteed.
If you want to be sure you’re buying eggs that come from chickens who are treated well, look for pasture-raised. This label means the chickens are raised outdoors on green pastures with a minimum of 108 square feet per chicken for at least 6 hours a day. Handsome Brook Farm and Vital Farms are two such brands that are available in select grocery stores nationwide.
This is a voluntary certification by the non-profit Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) organization that farms can opt in for. It certifies that eggs that come from chickens who are cage-free, free-range, or pasture-raised, and the farm exceeds certain basic requirements like space, access to food and water, air quality, and outdoor access.