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Here a chick there a chick everywhere a chick chick

June 22, 2012

What is all this hullabaloo about free range eggs?

Yesterday a couple of my son’s running buddies came by for pancakes after their morning practice and out came the eggs from Mil-Ton Farms. Sam explained that the chickens were penned at night to provide some protection but during the day they were permitted to wander around and eat what they wanted off the ground. The guys watched closely, almost expecting the yolk to be real gold, as Sam mixed the batter. I think they were disappointed there were no bugles playing a fanfare.

What they did get in those eggs were better nutrition! Studies have shown that eggs from free-ranging or pastured chickens have

 • 1/3 less cholesterol
• 1/4 less saturated fat
• 2/3 more vitamin A
• 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
• 3 times more vitamin E
• 7 times more beta carotene


True free-range birds eat a natural diet — all kinds of seeds, green plants, insects and worms, usually along with grain or laying mash. Factory farm birds typically never even see the outdoors, let alone get to forage for their natural diet. Instead they are fed a mixture of corn, soy and/or cottonseed meals, with all kinds of additives.

Studies about the nutritional content of free-range eggs include:

  • In 1974, the British Journal of Nutrition found that pastured eggs had 50 percent more folic acid and 70 percent more vitamin B12 than eggs from factory farm hens.
  • In 1988, Artemis Simopoulos, co-author of The Omega Diet, found pastured eggs in Greece contained 13 times more omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids than U.S. commercial eggs.
  • A 1998 study in Animal Feed Science and Technology found that pastured eggs had higher omega-3s and vitamin E than eggs from caged hens.
  • A 1999 study by Barb Gorski at Pennsylvania State University found that eggs from pastured birds had 10 percent less fat, 34 percent less cholesterol, 40 percent more vitamin A, and four times the omega-3s compared to the standard USDA data. Her study also tested pastured chicken meat, and found it to have 21 percent less fat, 30 percent less saturated fat and 50 percent more vitamin A than the USDA standard.
  • In 2003, Heather Karsten at Pennsylvania State University compared eggs from two groups of Hy-Line variety hens, with one kept in standard crowded factory farm conditions and the other on mixed grass and legume pasture. The eggs had similar levels of fat and cholesterol, but the pastured eggs had three times more omega-3s, 220 percent more vitamin E and 62 percent more vitamin A than eggs from caged hens.
  • The 2005 study Mother Earth News conducted of four heritage-breed pastured flocks in Kansas found that pastured eggs had roughly half the cholesterol, 50 percent more vitamin E, and three times more beta carotene.

You can now find eggs marketed with a number of descriptions.

Cage-Free Eggs 

Cage-free eggs are eggs from birds that are not raised in cages, but in floor systems usually in an open barn. The hens have bedding material such as pine shavings on the floor, and they are allowed perches and nest boxes to lay their eggs.  However, they may still be at close quarters with many other hens — just not in cages. That depends on the farm.

Free-Range Eggs

Free-range eggs are laid from hens that have the opportunity to go outside. Smaller farms may keep birds outside under a canopy area. They may travel in and out of a barn at free will or spend some portion of their day roaming outdoors.

Organic Eggs

Organic eggs are laid from hens that may be kept in any kind of caging system, but generally are cage free. They eat an organic feed and don’t receive vaccines or antibiotics. In order to qualify for USDA organic certification, the grains used for the hens’ diets must be produced on land that has been free from the use of toxic and persistent chemical pesticides and fertilizers for at least three years. Genetically engineered crops are not permitted, and hens must be maintained without hormones, antibiotics, and other intrusive drugs.

Vegetarian Eggs

Vegetarian eggs are laid from hens that are only fed a vegetarian diet — free from meat or fish by-products. Hens are kept in cages or indoors and do not peck any grubs or worms.

Pasteurized Eggs

Pasteurized eggs are eggs in their shell that have been put through a pasteurization process where they are heated to 140 degrees Fahrenheit for three and a half minutes. Eggs are not required to be pasteurized. Pasteurization completely kills bacteria, such as salmonella, without cooking the egg. The process can also be done for packaged egg whites used in cooking.

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