Want some of the most beautifully colored eggs this Easter, but don’t have time to dye them? No problem, you can get eggs in all colors from soft, warm brown to light sage, blue-green and olive or even pink. The best part? The chickens do all the work.
Different breeds of chickens produce different egg colors. This shell color is a result of pigments that are secreted by the hen and deposited on the eggshell’s outer layers during formation in the chicken’s oviduct. Brown eggs are from the pigment protoporphyrin, a breakdown product of hemoglobin. Blue and green hues are caused by the pigment oocyanin, a by-product of bile formation.
I was a bit skeptical of some of the information I found from the Egg Nutrition Center. The Center reported that the color of the eggs a chicken lays is related to the species of the chicken and the color of the chicken’s earlobes. Chickens have earlobes? (Tips on buying eggs and what the labels mean after the jump).
I loved the fresh brown eggs we used to get from our neighbor when I was a kid in rural Missouri. The beautiful brown shells and bright orange, firm yolks were almost worth reaching under the chicken for. Almost. The rest of the memory is of pecking beaks and chicken poop, I am likely scarred for life. Not enough to call the 24-hour Alektorophobia hotline, but we chicken-phobes can all rest better knowing operators are standing by to take our call. These days, I like my farm fresh, brown eggs, washed, and in a carton.
The color of the eggshell has nothing to do with the flavor or the nutritional value of the egg. Both of these depend on the diet of the chicken, how it is raised and the freshness of the egg. There is a lot of confusion, however, with all the terms regarding eggs. Caged, Cage-free, Free Range, Pastured, Vegetarian-Fed, High-Omega-3 … what does it all mean?
The information out there does not make the learning curve any easier. For example, the American Egg Board, sponsored by industrial chicken and egg farming, states that “The nutrient content of eggs is not affected by whether hens are raised free-range or in floor or cage operations.”
This statement can be true, but not always, and it is incredibly misleading. The problem is the use of the term free-range. You see, a chicken that has access to the outdoors is free-range or cage free, but this chicken may live in a pen and its diet may be the same commercial feed as a caged, factory farm chicken. The access to outdoors may be such a limited event in the chicken’s brief lifespan, that “free-range” doesn’t even apply.
Chickens who live in “cage and floor operations” have some of the worst living conditions of any large scale livestock farming. They are often force molted to increase egg production. Force molting is achieved by staving the chicken for five to fourteen days. The stress causes the chicken to lay more eggs temporarily. Just by supporting free-range chicken and egg production, we would be making a better choice. This choice may not greatly increase the nutrition content of the egg, however.
The nutrition of an egg is primarily determined by the chickens’ diet. A chicken that is free-range and has access to pasture and a natural diet of bugs and grass in addition to non-commercial grain produces eggs that are higher in Omega-3 and other nutrients.
Factory farmed eggs can be made higher in Omega-3 and some nutrients by supplementing the chickens’ diet with things like flax seed. These are more nutritious eggs than conventional factory farm eggs, but not a true substitute for the eggs produced from a pastured chickens’ natural diet.
A good clue to the nutritional content of an egg is the color of the yolk. The deep orange color often seen in a naturally-produced egg yolk is related to the chickens’ diet. If the diet includes yellow and orange plant pigments called xanthophylls, the yolk will be deep yellow-orange. If the diet is low in these pigments, the yolk can be almost colorless.
The yolk holds all of the egg’s vitamin content including six B vitamins, as well as vitamins A, D, and E. The yolk also contains the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin and trace amounts of carotene, phosphorus, iron, and magnesium.
The American Egg Board’s claim of equality also does not address any differences in egg nutrition for a chicken on a diet of commercial feed and antibiotics for “floor and cage operations” versus a chicken raised cage-free without antibiotics and not fed commercial feed. Commercial feed often contains animal by-products such as bone, feathers, blood, manure and animal parts. It can also contain arsenic.
These “animal by-products” are often from beef. This is the same ingredient that has been banned from commercial feed for beef cattle because of concerns over Mad Cow disease. Ironically, the “meat by-product” now used for the protein source in commercial cattle feed is chicken by-products and feather meal. So, which comes first? The chicken that eats the cow, or the cow that eats the chicken?
It’s important to note, that unlike cows (ruminants), chickens are not vegetarians. They do eat protein sources like bugs. The reason you see “vegetarian-fed” on labels is to reference the lack of animal by-products in the grain that the chickens’ diet is supplemented with.
The ideal egg, for both humans and chickens, would be one from a chicken that has unlimited access to pasture and a natural diet of grasses and bugs in addition to grain that has not been supplemented with antibiotics, toxins or animal by-products. You can’t find these eggs in most grocery stores. You have to find the farmer or a grocery store that sources quality local eggs.
The Eat Well site has a great guide to what you should ask your local farmer when sourcing eggs, but here are a few important questions to ask so you can be sure you are getting the best eggs possible for you, and for the chicken:
- Are chickens allowed a natural and varied diet along with grain?
- How much access to pasture do the chickens have? How long do they get to be outdoors?
- Have producer describe “cage-free” conditions, or best yet, visit the farm
- Is the feed free of animal by-products (vegetarian)? What type of feed is the chickens’ diet supplemented with?
- Is the feed supplemented with high Omega-3 sources like flax seed?
- Was the chicken ever fed antibiotics?
- Was the chicken ever force molted?