We eat a lot of eggs. These little powerhouses of nutrition make up a significant portion of our diet. We begin nearly every day with two or three each, sometimes cooked in butter, fried in bacon fat, or made into a frittata with meat or cheese, sometimes with both. Eggs are high protein, virtually zero carb, and they have a perfect mix of essential amino acids needed by us humans, with thirteen essential vitamins and minerals. The yolk is the major source of all this goodness. Don’t throw it away! Notably, eggs are one of the very few foods that contain Vitamin D. They are a source of biologically available lutein and zeaxanthin, which help protect against age-related macular degeneration. Eggs contain the highest quality protein you can buy, second only to mother’s milk for human nutrition.
Because we rely on eggs to provide essential amino acids and fatty acids, we feel that it’s important to obtain the best, most nutritious eggs possible. If you’ve ever had a fresh egg from a chicken allowed to eat its natural diet, you know and appreciate the enormous difference there is between it and a conventionally produced egg. The taste is richer, the yolk stands tall and is more orange-yellow in hue, and the white is thicker. Eggs are truly nature’s perfect food– versatile, portable, delicious and wholesome. And they are a real bargain, both for our budget and for our well-being!
What are chickens designed to eat?
Chickens are omnivores, which means that they eat both plants and animals. When allowed to run free, chickens feed on earthworms, small insects, herbs and green plants, even fruits. Chickens also catch and eat small animals such as mice and frogs. They will even eat each other and the eggs of other animals or birds.
Unlike herbivores, omnivores can’t digest some of the substances in grains. (Humans would be included in this category.) Some birds can eat seeds/grain exclusively and these are classified as granivores. Goldfinches would be an example. There are very few strictly granivorous animals. Chickens are not among them. Despite this, all conventionally raised hens and chickens raised for meat eat feed made of grains.
The unnatural formula fed to industrial chickens is a dried concoction that may also contain soy. (We avoid soy like the plague it is for human health.) Flaxseed or fish oil may be thrown in for Omega-3 enhancement and synthetic vitamins added. Purina proudly describes its SunFresh® feed as “highest quality sun-grown grains and plant proteins to give birds the wholesome, healthy goodness and fresh taste they deserve… FREE of all animal proteins and fats, it contains all the quality nutrients necessary…” In other words, only grain. No fresh, green plants, no bugs, no worms. No animal protein or fats. Grain alone means a sickly chicken.
Egg cartons in the supermarket, especially those sold in ‘health food’ stores, are almost universally emblazoned with “fed a vegetarian diet”, as if this were a good thing. It’s not. It’s done because it’s cheap, easy and controllable. As Paul Wheaton of richsoil.com says, “When I see ‘100% vegetarian diet!’ on a carton of eggs, I think ‘our chickens suffered to satisfy the passions of ignorant twits!’ I have yet to see a package of eggs with the words ‘diet includes bugs and other meat’.”
In order to restrict the birds’ diet, their environment must also be tightly regimented. The industry uses battery cages or large barns where the hens have no access to the outdoors or sunlight. The American Egg Board website states, “The nutrient content of eggs is not affected by whether hens are raised free-range or in floor or cage operations.” However, tests conducted by Mother Earth News showed that pastured eggs (from hens that had an omnivorous diet with access to green plants and bugs) contain significantly higher nutrient values.
Here are the results per 100 grams: conventional eggs vs. the average of all the pastured eggs:
Conventional: 487 IU
Pastured avg: 792 IU
Conventional: 34 IU
Pastured avg: 136 – 204 IU
Conventional: 0.97 mg
Pastured avg: 3.73 mg
Conventional: 10 mcg
Pastured avg: 79 mcg
Omega-3 fatty acids:
Conventional: 0.22 g
Pastured avg: 0.66 g
The superior nutrient values of pastured eggs notwithstanding, how the birds are raised is also a question of ethics and sustainability. We would prefer to support the topsoil-building practices of polyculture where we are able, but sometimes we find it nearly impossible to procure local eggs from hens that forage for their natural diet. It’s especially difficult when we’re cruising in remote areas during the summer. If one can find a local grower, it is important to ask what the hens are eating, as the farmer be may be relying on grain feed. Some supplementation with grain is okay, though it does slant the fatty acid profile toward Omega-6 PUFAs.
When we arrived for a two-month stay in Friday Harbor last July, we immediately began searching for pastured eggs, checking with all our previous local sources. Alas, during the ‘high season’, the farmers on San Juan Island have a limited supply. It seems that the numerous ‘bed and breakfast’ establishments have standing orders for all available eggs. Rarely were there any for sale at the weekly Farmer’s Market. We were very disappointed because it had always been easy to buy local eggs on the island during winter and early spring.
We resigned ourselves to buying eggs at the grocery store. We bought Omega-3 free-range eggs, a lesser choice. One really can’t be sure what the term ‘free-range’ means since it’s not regulated. Sometimes it only means that the producer has opened a small door at one end of a huge barn– access to a fenced bare dirt or concrete area. These chickens choose to stay indoors where the feed is dispensed.
In the US, only 5% of eggs are ‘non-cage’, though there is some hope for the future. The citizens of California recently passed a ballot initiative that will effectively ban hen cages in the state as of 2015. Interestingly, we read that sales of cage-produced eggs increased by 11% in 2007 due to price promotions, while organic egg sales fell. The industry took this as evidence that consumers wanted cheap eggs more than ‘welfare-friendly’ ones. We who believe in SOLE food – sustainable, organic, local, ethical – have some work to do!
As soon as we returned to Sacramento for the winter a few weeks ago, our search for Good Eggs began anew. We found several postings on craigslist and contacted the farmers. Upon questioning, we learned that all were using commercial feed and that the hens were not allowed to forage. We kept searching.
Eureka! A conscientious farmer about 25 miles away in Wilton raises chickens the natural way! We were pleased to learn too that her parents live just minutes from us. They visit the Wilton farm weekly and offered to bring our eggs home with them. So, we are now enjoying delicious, optimally nutritious, pastured eggs from Nicole– dozens of them each week. As we said, we eat a LOT of eggs! We are grateful to Nicole for her commitment to the well-being of her chickens. Healthy hens lay healthful eggs. YUM!
Obtaining good food requires a little more effort, but it’s insignificant in comparison to the dedication of local farmers.