With eggs costing $1/dzn at some grocery stores, why do I buy pastured eggs, and pay $2 or $2.50/dzn? Well, let me tell you a story…
My First Pastured Eggs
Although I currently live in a metropolitan suburb, I am fortunate enough to have family that lives in a rural area – including my can-cook-anything sister. I distinctly remember staying over at her place a few years ago and getting served two enormous, bright yellow eggs that tasted…amazing. I mean, truly amazing. At the time, I was a wee college student with fledgling cooking skills, but I was very proud of my ability to make fabulous eggs. My roommates LOVED my eggs. But these blew mine out of the water.
When I asked what she did to the eggs to make them so good, she shrugged and said that she had fried them in bacon grease.
Okay, yes, bacon makes everything better. But I frequently fried my eggs in bacon grease, and they still didn’t taste this good, so I pressed the issue further. She thought for a minute, then said that she bought her eggs from a local farmer; maybe there was a taste difference.
I didn’t think much of this incident again until I watched Food Inc, a controversial documentary that discussed some of the issues with conventionally raised meat. But when the video showed overly crowded, disgusting hen houses – where chickens were literally so fat from conventional feed that their legs collapsed under their weight, causing them to lay in their own feces – I remembered those amazing local eggs…and wondered if there actually was a difference.
I did some research, and concluded that yes…yes, there’s a difference.
My sister had given me pasture-raised, fresh eggs from chickens that were well cared for. They were given plenty of space to run around and eat bugs and grass.
Shockingly (or not), happy chickens eating mostly wild food, produce better eggs that miserable chickens laying in feces. Or even just regular chickens sitting in a reasonably clean cage eating corn and soy meal.
The most obvious difference between a pastured and conventional egg is the color of the yolk. Pastured eggs are a deep yellow or light orange, whereas conventional eggs are pale yellow (think – beta carotene makes things, like carrots, orange. Pastured eggs have more beta carotene! See the nutrition section). The yolks also tend to be bigger, as do the eggs themselves. I tried to bring one of my local farmers an empty Meijer egg carton and he turned me away because I brought him a medium size carton – and he said he never got eggs smaller than ‘large’ and usually only got ‘jumbo’ sized ones!
Better Environmental Stewardship
Many hen houses are disgusting. Google them. I am not going to go into a lot of detail here, because the topic is kind of nauseating, but Food Inc might be a good place to start. Fun fact – I’ve seen hen houses like the the ones in the documentary with my own eyes. I’ve also seen decently kept conventional chicken coops, and local pasture raised hen houses. The giant disgusting ones? No thanks, I don’t want to eat anything that comes out of there.
Better Nutrition (probably)
One study at Penn State University found that when they allowed chickens to graze, the eggs had more than double the amount of omega-3 fatty acids (these are the healthy fats that people are supposed to eat more of). These chickens’ eggs also contained double the Vitamin E compared to their conventional counterparts and a higher Vitamin A concentration. A Cambridge study found very similar results.
Mother Earth News, while not a traditionally reputable scientific source, ran their own study on these eggs and found that compared to conventional eggs, pastured eggs had:
- 2x omega-3 fatty acids (matching the Penn State Study)
- 3x Vitamin E (slightly more than the Penn State Study, but comparable)
- 1.6x Vitamin A (again, comparable to Penn State)
- 7x beta carotene
- ¼ less saturated fat
- ⅓ less cholesterol
The study looked at 14 different truly pasture-raised chicken producers across the US. The results were relatively consistent with a 2005 study done by the same magazine.
I’ve seen a variety of claims online that pastured eggs provide more choline, Vitamin D, Vitamin K, and assorted B Vitamins as well, but I can’t find any substantial and robust studies on the topic. As the Penn State scientists explain however, it stands to reason that the nutrition in a chicken’s diet would have large implications on the nutrition in the chicken products. Even if Vitamins E and A are the only advantages though…I want to jump on that! Vitamin E isn’t all that prevalent in the modern American diet, and eggs would be a great source!
Like any good scientist, I would like to see another hundred studies replicating these findings, but unfortunately that hasn’t happened yet. However, since the only studies done so far more-or-less show the same thing, I’m going to give pastured eggs the benefit of the doubt in terms of nutrition. Besides, THEY TASTE BETTER.
Personally, I think that pasture raised eggs tasted substantially different than conventional eggs, but studies are inconclusive about this. One study showed that when the color of the eggs were masked, tasters couldn’t tell a difference, or chose conventional eggs. I have to wonder, however, if these results could be skewed – after all, people are inclined to choose the foods and tastes that they are most used to. Perhaps they naturally preferred familiar tastes, instead of simply being unable to tell the difference between egg types (and I SWEAR they taste better!).
My husband agrees. He didn’t like eggs growing up, but I had a problem with that, since I eat eggs nearly every day. I made him some friend eggs in butter, he grudgingly took a bite…and thought it was good! We assumed his tastes had just changed as he got older. Several months later, he went away on a business trip for a few days. Since his company is trash and doesn’t give him hardly any money for food on the business trips, he decided to make breakfast on a camp stove in his motel room. He bought regular eggs, and cooked them up in butter, just like he often does at home…and he said they were so bad, he could barely make himself eat them.
I might do a blindfolded test on myself to verify this, but for now, you’ll just have to take my word on it…until you try pastured eggs yourself.
Buying Pastured Eggs.
Stay tuned for my “practical considerations” post and be warned…expensive grocery store ‘free range’ eggs do NOT have any real health benefit over conventional eggs!