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The 5 Things You Need to Know When Buying Eggs

We love it when Martha brings eggs from her hens to the office for us, but mostly we're in the grocery store trying to work out which eggs are freshest, healthiest, and best for the environment. Here's what we've learned and what you need to know to become an informed egg buyer.

Associate Digital Food Editor
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Photography by: Hans Gissinger

1. Ignore the color

The color of the shell is determined by the breed of the hen and has no bearing on the egg’s flavor, nutrition, or quality. It’s also controlled by regional preferences: brown eggs are more popular in the Northeast while the majority of the rest of the country favors white.

2. Size them up

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) size descriptors refer to the total weight of a dozen eggs:

Medium: 21 ounces (1.75 ounce per egg)

Large: 24 ounces (2 ounces per egg)

Extra-Large: 27 ounces (2.25 ounces per egg)

Jumbo: 30 ounces (2.5 ounces per egg)

 

Large eggs are the size most commonly sold in grocery stores and are the standard in most recipes (including ours).

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3. Look closely at the dates

Pack Date 

Required for all USDA-approved eggs, this is the date on which they were inspected, cleaned, and placed in the carton. It’s a three-digit code that corresponds to the day of the year, starting with 001 for January 1 and ending with 365 for December 31. Keep in mind that while it’s possible that the eggs were laid within a few days of their pack date, producers have up to 30 days to process and package them, so the eggs could already be a month old. You can store the eggs in the refrigerator for four to five weeks beyond this date.

 

Expiration Date, Sell By, EXP

These terms are followed by a date in the month/day format, which can't be more than 30 days after the pack date.

 

Use By, Use Before, Best Before 

This terminology indicates the maximum length of time that the eggs will maintain their quality. It must be no more than 45 days from the day the eggs were packed into the carton.

 

The flavor of the eggs isn’t really affected by freshness, but the texture of the whites and yolks do get thinner with age. As a result, older eggs tend to spread out more in the frying pan and are more difficult to poach. On the upside, they make perfect hard-boiled eggs that are easy to peel.

4. Check the grade

35 to 40 percent of egg producers pay for the USDA's voluntary grading program, which designates eggs as AA, A, or B based on the quality of the whites, yolks, and shells. AAs are considered the best, boasting firm whites, round, defect-free yolks, and clean shells. As are the most commonly sold grade and similar to AAs but have slightly thinner whites. Bs have watery whites and shell blemishes and are not usually found in stores. Any grade works for most cooking and baking applications. For producers who choose not to use the USDA grading service, compliance with official U.S. grades, weight classes, and standards is monitored by state agriculture departments. These eggs will normally bear a grade on their cartons but without the USDA shield.

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Photography by: Ditte Isager

5. Learn what the labels mean

All-Natural/Farm Fresh

Supposed to indicate that the eggs are minimally processed and contain no added ingredients, but all eggs fit this description, so the labels effectively mean nothing.

 

Hormone-Free

Just a marketing ploy -- since hormone use in hens is illegal in the U.S., all eggs are technically hormone-free.

 

No Antibiotics

Another misleading term because most laying hens in the U.S. are not given antibiotics.

 

Vegetarian-Fed

Means that the hens were fed an all-vegetarian diet, typically a mix of corn and soybeans, without any animal byproducts. However, it also suggests that the chickens weren't allowed to spend any time outside, where as natural omnivores, they would feed on bugs and worms.

 

Omega-3 Enriched

All eggs naturally contain omega-3, which is purported to lower cholesterol. Omega-3 enriched eggs come from hens that have been fed flaxseed, algae, or fish oil for a higher amount of the fatty acid. It’s difficult to know how much higher, though, as egg producers aren’t required to say.

 

Pasteurized

These eggs have been sterilized via a 130-degree water bath, which is useful for people who consume their eggs raw or runny and want to eliminate the minimal risk of getting sick from them.

 

Cage-Free, Free-Range, Free-Roaming

Cage-free simply means that the hens aren’t confined to the tiny battery cages that have become the factory farm standard. They don't get any outdoor access and have scarcely more space than caged birds. Still, they’re at least able to exhibit some natural behaviors, such as walking around and spreading their wings. Free-range or free-roaming hens are also uncaged but have some access to the outdoors. However, there are no regulations on the size or quality of the area or the amount of time allotted outdoors. The USDA verifies cage-free and free-range labels for egg producers who participate in their grading program. Unless there's a state mandate, the claims are not substantiated when used on non-USDA inspected eggs.

 

Pasture-Raised

Indicates that hens spend the majority of their lives outdoors. No official definition regarding the term exists, so the amount of space and pasture variety can differ greatly from farm to farm, but this method of production allows chickens to exhibit the most natural behaviors, from roaming and foraging to perching and dust-bathing. Bonus: Research shows that eggs from pasture-raised chickens are higher in vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids than those from hens raised in confinement.

 

Certified Organic

Issued and audited by the USDA’s Natural Organic Program, this certification requires hens to be uncaged and fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet. They also get an unspecified degree of outdoor access, which varies widely based on the producer. Check out the Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Egg Scorecard to see how producers measure up when it comes to animal welfare and organic principles such as farm diversity and nutrient recycling.

 

United Egg Producers Certified

Developed for and by the egg industry, this program can't really be considered an independent third party. It allows cages and doesn’t require any access to the outdoors.

 

American Humane Certified

Administered by the American Humane Association, this program also permits the use of cages and does not call for any access to the outdoors.

 

Certified Humane

Under this label issued by Humane Farm Animal Care, chickens must be uncaged and have enough space to perform natural behaviors like nesting, perching, and dust-bathing. However, it does not require access to the outdoors.

 

Food Alliance Certified

The standards for this nonprofit sustainable agriculture certification program are cage-free hens and access to outdoor areas with living vegetation.

 

Animal Welfare Approved

Issued by the Animal Welfare Institute, this label guarantees that hens are cage-free and have continuous outdoor access for ranging and foraging. It's also the only program that forbids beak-cutting, a common practice to prevent birds from pecking at each other.

Hatch a Plan

When buying eggs, there are a lot of factors to consider: price, nutrition, local economic impact, and animal welfare, are just a few. And since many labels aren’t verified by an independent third party, consumers are often forced to rely on the word of the producer alone. So how to proceed? Think about which labels are important to you and look for brands that have proven to meet those standards. Or visit a local farmers' market where you can talk to the farmer directly about the eggs you're purchasing. Or if you live in a place where it's possible, take a page out of Martha's book and raise your own chickens.

 

Once you have the eggs in your basket, we’ve got you covered with ideas on how to use them morning, noon, and night.

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