When you’re standing in the grocery store, staring at a dozen or more different cartons of eggs, the various labels can get confusing. The more a carton has, the more expensive it seems to be.

How do you know if spending that extra money on a dozen eggs is worth it for your health or for the health or the well-being of the chickens they came from? The first step is understanding what those labels mean. Some are regulated by the USDA and some are not. A few of them are just marketing terms that mean absolutely nothing.

Cage-free: Cage-free eggs come from chickens that weren’t kept inside cages and can freely roam around the building they are in. They have unlimited access to food and fresh water, but not access to the outdoors.

Comfort Coop/Enriched Colony: A fairly new label, Comfort Coop chickens are in larger cages than traditionally caged birds. They live in an “Enriched Colony Barn that allows them the opportunity to experience natural behaviors like nesting in a private area, flapping their wings, stretching, scratching and perching all in a very safe, clean, comfortable environment.”

carton of farm fresh eggs

What exactly does 'farm fresh' mean when you see it on a carton of eggs? (Photo: Melissa Baldwin/flickr)

Farm Fresh/Farm Raised: This label is a marketing term. All chickens are raised on farms, even if they’re factory farms. The marketers hope you picture the chickens roaming freely outside a red barn on a sunny afternoon, but the word "farm," when it comes to egg labeling, means nothing specific.

Fertile: The hens lived with roosters. This may mean they were cage-free.

Free-range/Free-roaming: Free-range or free-roaming chickens have the ability to move around inside their building and have unlimited access to food and fresh water, like cage-free birds do. They also must have access to the outdoors “during their production cycle.” However, there is no regulation for how easy that access needs to be for the chickens, the conditions or the size of the outdoor area is, or how much time (if at all) chickens must spend outdoors.

Grass-fed: The USDA says that grass-fed animals must get the majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their life. Chickens that are grass-fed eat a more natural diet, including digesting insects, but the chickens’ food could be supplemented with feed containing pesticides and animal products.

Humanely-raised: A generic “humanely raised” label doesn’t mean anything, but there are third-party organizations that will put their humane seal on eggs like Certified Humane or The Humane Society. To find out if those organizations definition of humane meets your own definition of humane, read up on each organization’s standards on their websites.

Natural: The USDA states that “egg products labeled as ‘natural’ must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients.” Beyond that, there is no regulation regarding farming practices, how the chickens are kept, or what they’re fed.

No antibiotics: The chickens were raised without being given antibiotics for health maintenance, disease prevention or treatment of a disease.

No hormones: This one is strictly a marketing term. The FDA prohibits the use of hormones in chickens. All eggs and all chicken products are always hormone-free.

Omega-3 enriched: Eggs that are enhanced with omega-3 fatty acids come from chickens that have been given feed with ingredients like flax seeds or fish oils to increase the omega-3 in their eggs.

Organic: Organic eggs must have the USDA Organic seal that verifies the eggs meet the organic standards including coming from uncaged hens that are free to roam in their houses and have access to the outdoors. The hens are fed an organic diet of feed produced without conventional pesticides or fertilizers.

Pasteurized: Eggs that have been pasteurized have been exposed to heat to destroy potential bacteria. Pasteurization may reduce the amount of vitamins in the eggs.

Vegetarian-fed: The feed given to the chickens contains no animal products like processed protein and fats and oils from meat and poultry by-products. Because chickens in their natural habitats aren’t vegetarian — they do eat insects — vegetarian-fed isn’t for the benefit of the birds.

Sources: USDA.gov, National Chicken Council, Incredible Egg, Comfort Coop Eggs, Egg Industry

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Understanding egg labels
Don’t know the difference between cage-free and free-range, natural and organic? This will help.