🍳Cage-free vs. free range: Egg carton labels ‘Eggs-plained’

With eggs at super-high prices, you want to make sure you’re getting what you think you’re paying for

High prices have hit nearly every aisle in the supermarket, but arguably no price hike has caused as much chatter as the cost of a dozen eggs.

Prices jumped 60% on average in 2022, according to the Consumer Price Index.

Still, there are probably several brands of eggs in your supermarket at a range of prices, labeled with a variety of claims. If it’s important to you that the chickens were raised outdoors, for example, and the cage-free eggs are cheaper than the free-range eggs, should you go for the ones that cost less? Knowing the real meaning behind these and other claims on egg labels can help you make the right choices for you.

Let’s start off with labels you can ignore like “farm-fresh,” “natural” and “no hormones.”

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“All eggs are from farms, and all eggs are natural, so “farm-fresh” and “natural” really has no clear meaning. And by law, chickens can’t be given hormones. So a carton of eggs that have these claims isn’t really any different from a carton that doesn’t,” said Consumer Reports Editor Trisha Calvo.

[RELATED: Is it worth raising chickens to save money on eggs? | Lé Koopé brings eggs to Central Florida at a reasonable price]

Cage-Free: This term means that the hens are not kept in cages, but it doesn’t mean they’re clucking around in the fresh air and sunshine. They can be kept indoors, often in crowded conditions.

Farm Fresh: All eggs come from “farms,” even if the farm is a big building where chickens are packed into cages, so this labeling claim has no value. The term “fresh” generally means the product hasn’t been frozen, but eggs in the shell should never be frozen.

Free Range: The birds aren’t kept in cages and they have outdoor access, but they can still be raised in crowded conditions and the outdoor area can be tiny. But the combination of free range and either the Certified Humane or American Humane Certified labels on the carton means the birds can access a spacious outdoor run.

Natural: People often mistake “natural” for “organic,” but the two terms are very different. By definition, an egg is a natural food product, so slapping “natural” on it has no clearly defined additional meaning.

No Hormones: By law, chickens that produce eggs and those that are sold for meat can’t be given hormones, so eggs with this claim on the package label are no different from eggs sold without it.

Organic: This seal means eggs were laid by hens fed grains grown without synthetic pesticides or GMOs. The birds cannot be raised in cages or given antibiotics. They must have outdoor access, though in some cases this can still mean confined conditions in a building with just a small concrete porch.

Pasture-Raised: There’s no standard definition of this term, so on its own the meaning may not be clear. But with the Certified Humane or the American Humane Certified labels, which have similar standards for pasture-raised hens, the chickens must have access to a pasture with space to perform natural behaviors, such as pecking for seeds and bugs.

So, if buying eggs from healthier hens who were raised in more humane conditions is important to you, choose pasture-raised but be prepared to pay more, well over $5 per dozen.