Organic Eggs: Worth the Cost?

The article was based on a new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) study finding that different production methods—factory-farmed, cage-free, and free-roaming—all met the same quality standards. Yet, the author’s conclusions that organic eggs are no healthier than conventional, and that the way they’re raised is dangerous and not worth the added cost, run far afield of the research, misinterpreting the study’s primary finding.

The test used in the USDA study is a measure of egg quality, not nutrition.

The study used something called the Haugh unit, a scale between 0 to 110 that basically lets producers know whether or not the egg is stale (the lower the number, the lower the quality). To measure Haugh unit, an egg is broken onto a flat surface, where the height of the yolk and thickness of the egg white are measured, says Alissa Maloberti, director of egg product marketing at the American Egg Board. Fresh eggs have taller upstanding yolks and more compact whites, while older eggs have runner yolks and thinner whites.” While it is true that organic eggs and factory-farmed eggs are on par with levels of protein and other vital nutrients, studies have found that organic eggs are far higher in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Recent findings from Penn State University revealed that organically raised chicken eggs had three times more of these healthy fats than their confined counterparts, along with 40 percent more vitamin A and twice as much vitamin E.

“Free-roaming” and “cage-free” aren’t the same as “organic.”

The USDA study didn’t specify organic as one of the production methods they studied, but the author continually refers to “organic” eggs as though the authors had. Unlike “USDA Organic,” “free-range” and “cage-free” are unsubstantiated claims that aren’t verified by independent third parties—any producer can slap those labels on a carton of eggs without any evidence that his or her chickens roam free or live outside cages. To find out which labels to trust, and which to ignore, read our story on how to find the healthiest eggs.

Organic eggs are free of antibiotics; factory-farmed eggs are not.

One reason people opt for organic eggs is that they come from chickens not doused with, or fed food laced with, unhealthy antibiotics. The author writes that “the drugs are used sparingly in the egg-laying industry,” but a number of studies can show that’s not the case. A 2000 study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry found that antibiotics used in chicken feed can linger in a chicken’s eggs for up to seven days. Since then, a number of chicken companies have pledged to reduce the amount of antibiotics used, but studies published as recently as 2008 and 2010 are still finding residues of antibiotics commonly used in the poultry industry.

Organic eggs are also free of arsenic; factory-farmed eggs are not.

The tests from the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy, a nonprofit devoted to promoting sustainable agriculture, has found traces of arsenic in chicken meat, and a recent test by the Utah Department of Health detected arsenic in eggs from chickens fed conventional feed. The heavy metal contamination comes from an arsenic-based additive called roxarsone, approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), used to promote chicken growth. The Environmental Protection Agency has banned arsenic-based preservatives used on wood products, but the FDA hasn’t seen any logic for banning it in food designed for human consumption. Roxarsone is, however, banned in organic poultry production—just one more reason organic eggs are worth those few extra pennies.

Shell color doesn’t matter.

On this one point, the author is right. “Another mistake some health-conscious consumers make…is believing that the color of an egg makes a difference and that brown shells are somehow better than white ones. They’re not. Color is determined entirely by the breed of chicken laying it,” he writes. And that’s true. But store-bought eggs generally come from one type of chicken, while organically raised eggs you might find at a farmer’s market come from different heritage breeds. The nutritional content of the eggs doesn’t vary based on color, but the varied colors signal a genetic diversity of heritage breeds that has an unappreciated value. “Traditional breeds have irreplaceable genes,” says chicken expert and author Christine Heinrichs. “The value of rarity in living things is outweighed by the value they have as productive livestock.” And their colorful eggs, which can range from blues to greens to whites to browns, certainly make for a more interesting breakfast.

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