Sunday, April 15, 2007

Happy eggs: "free range," "cage free," "organic", "pastured"—what's the story? - Eating Right

E: The Environmental Magazine, May-June, 2003 by Starre Vartan

In the past 10 years, the egg has undergone a remarkable transformation, from a humble provider of protein, vitamins and minerals to an all-purpose edible conduit through which beneficial nutrients or potentially harmful chemicals can pass into the human body. As Americans become more critical of what they eat, small farmers and large-scale agribusiness have responded with a bewildering array of choices. And with the increasing variety of food products, even basics like eggs can confuse consumers.

In any reasonably enlightened grocery store, the consumer can choose between "free range," "cage-free" and "organic" eggs. One brand may be "fortified with omega-3's," and another from hens fed only with "natural grains." One package is simply labeled "natural." What do these different labels actually mean? And what is their significance to people with widely varying needs, such as a heart disease sufferer, a nursing mother, a vegetarian and an animal rights activist? And weren't eggs supposed to be bad for you anyway, being packed with fat and cholesterol?
The truth is that although eggs' nutritional value has been demonized in the past, they are a valuable source of protein, vitamins and minerals. A large egg has about 215 grams of cholesterol (about 70 percent of the daily allowance), meaning that it is probably best to eat them in moderation. However, eggs do contain heart-healthy nutrients such as antioxidants, folate and B-vitamins.

Organic and cage-free eggs have shown seven-fold growth since 1997. "Specialty eggs," as Linda Braun, consumer services director at the American Egg Board terms them, "Amount to about five percent of the total U.S. egg market." But this growing popularity has allowed smaller organic family farms to compete with the mechanized egg-producing giants, since they can charge up to twice as much for a dozen eggs.

In fact, many smaller farms have been able to stay in business because customers will pay--some because they care about animal rights, some because they prefer organic foods, and others because they believe organic eggs just taste better. "Some of our customers in their 70s and 80s call us and tell us they haven't tasted an egg like ours in years," says Jesse LaFlamme, whose father is Gerry of Pete and Gerry's Farm, a family-run egg producer in New Hampshire.
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not rate the taste of products, it does oversee all domestic egg production. Although eggs can now carry the USDA Organic label, the agency doesn't regulate any other claims made on egg packages. The organic label, as defined by the new official standards, means that neither the hens nor their feed can be subjected to antibiotics, hormones, pesticides or herbicides. As for other package descriptions, LaFlamme sums it up when he says, "`All-natural' is one of the biggest loopholes going. There are no guidelines around for that. It's in the hands of the consumer to sort it out."
The "Free-Range" Debate

When it comes to "cage-free" and "free-range" chickens, the debate gets pretty nuanced. At Organic Valley, a family of farms across the U.S., the hens are said to be free-range. According to a package insert, that means five feet of green space per bird outside and two feet inside, as well as natural sunlight inside the hen house. Egg Innovations, also a farmer's cooperative, produces several varieties of eggs, including cage-free. All of the company's eggs are "Free-Farmed," a label monitored by the American Humane Association. This label promises that the chickens are "free from any unnecessary fear and distress; free from unnecessary pain, injury and disease; free from hunger and thirst; and free from unnecessary discomfort." The company says its policy is to put animals first, over the dictates of profit.

Pete and Gerry's shies away from using the term free-range. "We think it's misleading to call them free-range," says LaFlamme. "We call them cage-free since it's not really realistic for them to be going outside in the winter in New Hampshire. They go outside when weather permits." A relatively rare label, "pasture-fed eggs," is applied to hens that are fed grains and also forage outside for wild plants and insects.

Omega-3 eggs contain that valuable nutrient due to its direct inclusion in chicken's feed. The source might be flax or linseed or direct supplement. The levels of omega-3's, which are also found in cold-water fish such as salmon, algae and dark-green vegetables, are self-regulated, so the assurances on packages aren't monitored. This polyunsaturated fat has been linked to increased mental function and immunity, reduced risk of heart disease, and more balanced metabolism, according to Dr. Andrew L. Stoll in his book The Omega-3 Connection.

NOTE On Omega-3 by Jeremiah: You see the term Pastured in this article, one of the few places that are conversant with this relatively new term. Pastured hens eat GREEN GRASS, this is the primary source of Omega-3. Green Grass is a dark-green vegetable!

No comments: