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Pick up any carton of eggs today and you are bombarded with language meant to obfuscate the truth. Free Range one carton exclaims, while another touts Cage Free! What's the difference? Here's a handy list that will help you interpret the marketing on egg cartons across the country.

  • Farm Fresh
    • This is nothing but marketing, it has no inherent meaning. Dismiss it and move on.
  • All Natural
    • Another rather meaningless term, this simply tells you that the eggs you're buying are 100% egg. Chickens, in general, are kept in fairly unnatural settings. On average, a chicken in this country is given less than 100 square inches in which to live.
  • Cage-Free
    • Finally, a phrase with some meaning! Indeed, these chickens are no longer kept in cages, but they are still packed tightly into industrial barns. These birds will have slightly more space (about 150 square inches) but nothing else changes. 
  • No Hormones
    • This is a bit of a red herring. It is illegal to feed egg-laying chickens hormones, so saying that there are no added hormones is like putting a sticker that says No Bananas Used! on an apple. Of course there are no bananas used in an apple. It isn't possible. 
  • Free Range
    • Sounds great, doesn't it? Well these chickens are kept in quarters just like the cage-free chickens (~150 square inches per bird) with the caveat that they have access to the outdoors. Note that this does not mean they live outside, nor does it mean they even use the space available to them. There's no government oversight to this term, so it can mean anything the farmer/marketer chooses.
  • Vegetarian Diet
    • This automatically makes you think the chickens are healthier, right? But chickens aren't naturally vegetarians. They're omnivores, they eat bugs, grasses, seeds, etc. When eggs proclaim that their chickens are living on a vegetarian diet it is simply a euphemism for corn-fed. These chickens are eating industrial corn feed with some supplemental amino acids and other proteins. Note: this is not natural.
  • Omega-3
    • These chickens might be getting a bit of flaxseed with their regular diet to boost the possibility of higher omega-3 levels in the eggs.
  • Organic
    • For the first time on this list we have a government regulated term. In this case, it means that the chickens are free range (remember that section above?), they're fed organic feed, and they receive no hormones or antibiotics. But they still live in overcrowded, industrial aviaries. Though this term looks nice on a box, it doesn't ensure that your chickens are happy and healthy.
  • Pasture Raised
    • Here is the best option. When a box says pasture-raised it likely means that the chickens spend most of their time outdoors, and have access to an aviary or a barn when they need shelter. They are able to forage and eat a diet of worms, insects, and grasses along with the regular corn feed provided by the farmer. There is no regulation of this term, so it can mean a number of things, but on average it is the phrase that the best aviaries use to describe their eggs and chickens.

If all of this leaves you confused, don't worry: you're not alone! Food is marketed to make us feel good about our purchases, not to describe the process of raising, feeding, harvesting, slaughter, etc. Though it might not be practical for everyone, my best advice is to buy your food from a person, not a store, whenever possible. And by that, I mean shop at farmer's markets. Nowadays there are egg vendors and meat vendors alongside the fruit and veggie farmers at most markets. Talk to the person who sells you the food. Ask questions! Curiosity is the solution to complacency.