Free range, organic, natural living... with so many types of eggs sold, it’s easy to get your feathers ruffled over what to buy. Dietitian Vanessa Furlong investigates.
If you are one of the growing number of Australians who buy their eggs with animal welfare in mind, you’ll be pleased to know that many egg manufacturers devote as much carton space to describing the living conditions of their hens as they do to listing the nutritional content of their eggs. However, while well intended, the various descriptors and logos can be overwhelming. It can often be difficult to tell the difference between classifications. But with a little insider information, you’ll know which eggs are right for you (and best for the bird).
The nutritional nod
Eggs are a nutritional powerhouse, providing healthy fats, hunger-busting protein and 18 vitamins and minerals. While in the past nutritionists cautioned that the cholesterol component of eggs could lead to increased risk of heart disease, decades of research have debunked that theory, putting eggs back on the menu as a nutritious part of a balanced diet.
How are eggs classified?
Eggs are broadly classified according to the housing system in which hens are kept. There are three types of eggs: cage eggs, barn-laid and free range.
Cage eggs come from hens housed in cages within a barn or shed.
Barn-laid, or ‘cage-free’, eggs come from hens that roam freely within a barn and lay their eggs in nesting boxes.
The third type of egg, ‘free range’ comes from hens that roam and forage outdoors during daylight hours, but return to their barn for roosting, laying, drinking and eating.
Which eggs are the most nutritious?
Regardless of housing conditions, studies show that eggs produced under all three systems have a similar nutritional profile, unless the hens’ diets have been supplemented with additional components, such as omega-3.
What about organic eggs?
There is some evidence to suggest that organic foods are richer in some nutrients, such as antioxidants, but so far, research shows that organic eggs seem to be nutritionally similar to non-organic eggs.
Does organic mean free range?
Not by law – technically, when you choose organic eggs, you’re simply choosing eggs from birds who are fed a certified organic diet with no synthetic chemicals, fertilisers, or GMOs used. But in Australia, to be certified as ‘organic’ by Australian Certified Organic (ACO – Australia’s primary certifying body of organic foods), organic eggs are required to be free range.
What does ‘free range’ actually mean?
While all egg manufacturers follow the Australian Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals, there is no legal definition of ‘free range’ in Australia – making it difficult to know exactly what you’re paying for. To overcome this, many manufacturers seek endorsement from independent third parties, who have developed their own standards for governing the various classifications of eggs. This third party endorsement isn’t necessary by law, but it provides an extra level of reassurance when shopping for eggs.
There’s also a national industry body (Australian Egg Corporation Limited) that certifies the majority of Australian eggs, as well as monitoring audits for egg manufacturers that have developed their own standards. If your egg carton doesn’t show certification by one of the primary certifiers of eggs in Australia (see right) that doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t certified. Some farmers opt to not include their certification on the packaging, instead designing their own logos with captions, such as ‘Accredited Free Range’ and ‘Cage-Free Accredited’. If you are in doubt, the best thing to do is to contact Australian Egg Corporation Limited, or speak with the manufacturer directly.
Australian Egg Corporation Limited (AECL)
Certifies: Cage, barn-laid and free range eggs. Dietary requirements: Diet must meet the nutritional needs of the bird at each stage of life. Auditing: Annually, plus spot audits by third party auditors. www.aecl.org
Free Range Egg and Poultry Australia Ltd. (FREPA)
Certifies: Free range eggs only. Dietary requirements: Diet must meet the nutritional needs of the bird at each stage of life. Auditing: Annually, plus spot audits by third party auditors. www.frepa.com.au
Australian Certified Organic (ACO)
Certifies: Free range eggs only. Dietary requirements: Certified organic feed. Auditing: Annually, plus spot checks conducted by a third party Australian Certified Organic assessor. www.bfa.com.au
Certifies: Both barn-laid and free range eggs (not cage). Dietary requirements: Diet must meet the nutritional needs of the bird at each stage of life. Auditing: 2–3 times a year by RSPCA assessors. www.rspca.org.au
Our egg picks
One of the big dilemmas of choosing eggs is that some free range egg producers also produce cage eggs. If you’re concerned about animal welfare, choosing free range eggs shows suppliers that more consumers are taking hens’ welfare into account when purchasing eggs. You may also prefer to choose a local supplier.
Sunny Queen $4.99 per pack Cage-free eggs are a budget-friendly alternative to free range eggs for those concerned about animal welfare.
Coles $4.79 per pack Barn-laid eggs are an affordable option for those concerned with animal welfare. These barn-laid eggs are also RSPCA certified.
Farm Pride $5.99 per pack These free range omega-3 eggs are from chickens fed an omega-3-enricheddiet, giving the eggs an average additional omega-3 content of 220mg/100g.
Sunny Queen Free Range Organic $6.99 per pack These organic eggs come from hens fed only a certified organic mix. The hens are also free range. A great choice if you’re concerned about animal welfare.
Free-Range Eco Eggs $6.92 per pack Unlike other suppliers, the suppliers of Eco Eggs only produce free range eggs – not cage eggs as well. (Available in NSW, VIC and QLD only.)
What about antibiotics and hormones?
All eggs in Australia are hormorne and antibiotic free – this is standard industry practice – which is why ‘no antibiotics’ and ‘no hormones’ are common on-pack claims. However, antibiotics can be used if a bird becomes ill, in which case its eggs are not sold, and the bird quarantined until it has recovered.
Nutritionally, cage eggs, barn-laid eggs and free range eggs appear to be similar, so health-wise, all eggs are good choices. But if animal welfare is a concern, it’s worth choosing free-range, barn-laid or cage-free eggs.