You Should Buy Pastured Eggs - the Science

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, as a wee college student with fledgling cooking skills, I was very proud of my ability to make fabulous 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.

Some research happened, and I concluded that yes...yes, there’s a difference.

Essentially, what I had eaten at my sister’s house were 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. This is what 'pastured chickens' or 'pastured eggs' means (or is supposed to mean).

Shockingly (or not), happy chickens eating mostly wild food, produce better eggs that miserable chickens laying in feces. Or even just sort-of miserable chickens sitting in a reasonably clean cage eating corn and soy meal.

Appearance
On the left is a farm egg, and on the right is a
regular 'large' egg. Note the size difference!
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
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 local pasture raised hen houses. I would rather treat my chickens nicely, okay thanks.

Better Nutrition
On 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, though imperfect, 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. The info-graphic to the right, taken directly from the Mother Earth News website (linked above), shows these results.

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, and grass-fed animal products in general are known to be nutritionally superior to conventional products, I’m going to give pastured eggs the benefit of the doubt in terms of nutrition...but I will remain alert for additional research.

Better Tasting:
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!).

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!

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