How to Buy the Best Eggs—and Understand Carton Labels Like Cage-Free and Pasture-Raised

We'll also teach you how to understand an egg carton's dates and choose the right size and grade.

carton of egg varieties
Photo: Hans Gissinger

As far as we're concerned, eggs are a nearly perfect food. They're nutritious and versatile—you can eat them for breakfast, lunch, or dinner and they also make nearly all of your baking adventures possible. When buying eggs, there are a lot of factors to consider, including size, color, price (especially these days), nutrition, local economic impact, and animal welfare. And since many labels, from cage-free to pasture-raised, 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? As you shop for eggs, think about the labels that 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). Even better? If you live in a place where it's possible, take a page out of Martha's book and raise your own chickens.

The Price of Eggs

The price of eggs is up: They are currently more expensive and harder to find for two reasons, namely bird flu and inflation. Over the last year, nearly 57 million chickens were affected by the spread of avian influenza, which has caused a shortage. Demand, however, is still high, resulting in prices now averaging up to $5.46 nationwide.

Egg Size Guide

A chicken's breed, diet, and age all determine how big her eggs are. If a recipe calls for large (as almost all of ours do) and you have medium or extra-large, beat them and use a kitchen scale to measure the desired amount by weight. One large egg will weigh about 50 grams (or 33 grams for whites and 17 grams for yolks).

Egg Color

Did you know that the color of an egg matches the earlobe of the hen that laid it? Whether it is pale or dark brown, white, or blue-tinged has no bearing on the egg's flavor, nutrition, or quality, which means all shades are nutritionally equal.

eggs in carton
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Every Egg Carton Label, Explained

There are a number of different labels present on egg cartons. From cage-free and free range to certified humane and animal welfare approved, we're sharing what each of the most common egg labels actually mean so you can make the most informed choice at the grocery store.


All eggs in the United States are hormone-free, whether you see this on the label or not. The FDA banned giving hens hormones in the 1950s.


These hens walk freely in an indoor enclosure, with unlimited food and water—but they don't get any outdoor access and may be in a large or crowded shed.

Free Range

This label is the same as cage-free, but the hens have some access to the outdoors once they're vaccinated and mature (and thus less vulnerable to disease and predators). 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.


While not regulated by the USDA, this term refers to hens that spend most of their life outdoors on open fields, grazing on grass, worms, bugs, and supplemental feed. This method of production allows chickens to exhibit the most natural behaviors, from roaming and foraging to perching and dust-bathing.

Certified Humane

Look for the "Certified Humane" seal on pasture-raised egg cartons: It means the farms also meet standards set by the Humane Farm Animal Care Organization.

All-Natural or Farm-Fresh

This label is 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.

Certified Organic

Regulated by the USDA's National Organic Program, this term means the birds live a free-range lifestyle, but eat an organic diet with no pesticides, fertilizers, or chemical additives. 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.


All eggs naturally contain omega-3, which is purported to lower cholesterol. The hens whose eggs are labeled as omega-3 enriched eat a diet with flaxseed, algae, or fish oil to boost fatty-acid levels from 47 to 100 milligrams or more per egg.

No Antibiotics

This is another misleading term: Most laying hens in the U.S. are not given antibiotics.


Vegetarian-fed indicates that 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.


These eggs have been sterilized via a 130-degree water bath, which reduces your risk of getting sick from them.

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.

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.

a dozen eggs in carton
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Egg Carton Dates

There are a few different dates that might be present on your egg carton. It's important to note that the flavor of the eggs isn't 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.

To help take the guesswork out of the dates you see on your cartons, we've outlined their meanings here.

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 Date, or 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, or 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.

Egg Grades and Quality: AA, A, or B

Somewhere between 35 and 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.

Health Benefits of Eggs

The 6 to 8 grams of protein found in each egg is just one plus: Eggs (most of which have about 70 calories) also provide other essential nutrients including vitamin B, immunity-supporting selenium, and choline, which is crucial for cognitive health. Despite packing 185 grams of cholesterol each, eggs don't negatively impact heart health, research shows. Per the American Heart Association, people with normal cholesterol levels and healthy diets can eat one a day, and those over 60 can eat two.

And don't forget that the yolk is your friend: 40 percent of an egg's protein is in that golden orb, along with its vitamin D, folate, and riboflavin.

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