There is a lot of conflicting and confusing information out there about eggs. Well I am here to help break it down for you a bit and explain why I prefer my eggs pasture raised :) Here are a few definitions to explain the difference between conventional, natural, cage-free, free-range and pasture-raised.
I've listed these in order from least optimal choice to BEST choice...
CONVENTIONAL Even the name conventional sounds off putting - am I right? In any case conventional eggs are the ones most typically found in your local supermarket. They come from chickens/hens raised in an overcrowded hen house, never see the light of day and are fed a grain based/corn heavy diet and are often treated with hormones and antibiotics.
NATURAL Currently, no standards exist for this label except when used on meat and poultry products. USDA guidelines state that “natural” meat and poultry products can only undergo minimal processing and cannot contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, or other artificial ingredients. However, “natural” foods are not necessarily sustainable, organic, humanely raised, or free of hormones and antibiotics.
*Most products use this term as a marketing tool to have you think you are making a good clean food choice when in reality you are being mislead.
CAGE-FREE “Cage-free” simply means that the birds are raised without cages. What this doesn’t explain is whether the birds were raised outdoors on pasture or if they were raised indoors in overcrowded conditions. If you are looking to buy eggs, poultry, or meat that was raised outdoors, look for a label that says “pastured” or “pasture-raised.”
FREE-RANGE The use of the terms “free-range” or “free-roaming” are only defined by the USDA for egg and poultry production. The label can be used as long as the producers allow the birds access to the outdoors so that they can engage in natural behaviors. It does not necessarily mean that the products are cruelty-free or antibiotic-free or that the animals spent the majority of their time outdoors. Claims are defined by the USDA, but are not verified by third-party inspectors which can make it tricky.
PASTURE-RAISED “Pasture-raised” indicates that the animal was raised on a pasture where it was able to eat nutritious grasses and other plants, rather than being fattened on grain in an overcrowded feedlot or barn. Pasturing livestock and poultry is a traditional farming technique that allows animals to be raised in a humane manner and in their natural habitat. Animals are able to move around freely and carry out their natural behaviors. This term is very similar to “grass-fed,” though the term “pasture-raised” indicates more clearly that the animal was raised outdoors on pasture.
You'll also notice that the color of the yolk of a pasture-raised egg is darker and more orange in color as opposed to a conventional egg which is often pale light yellow in color- this is usually related to the type of diet they are fed, not being allowed to forage for their own food and the fact that they live sedentary lives.
The yolk of an egg is personally my favorite part - I am a HUGE fan. Most people are scared of eating eggs (particularly the yolk) because they think it will raise their cholesterol but i'm here to say that studies show that egg cholesterol actually does not effect blood cholesterol, so eat away! (I mean you probably don't want to be eating 6 eggs a day - but you get the point - everything in moderation) Egg yolks actually hold a majority of the nutrients and vitamin A of an egg- so say goodbye to the days of only eating egg whites and get to eating whole pasture-raised eggs. If you can't find them at your local grocery store, check out your nearest farmers market or CSA.
Left: Pasture-Raised Egg vs. Right: Conventional Egg
*some of the information from this post courtesy of Institute of Integrative Nutrition.