Label Lingo: A Guide to Eggs

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Buying eggs used to be so simple: Grab a carton off the shelf, open it to check for any cracked shells and go on your merry way. These days, however, you need to interpret a myriad of claims on the label before deciding which carton goes into your cart. What do they all mean? Read on . . . we’ve got answers with this guide to eggs.


General Terms: There are a few terms that are found on the label of every carton:

  • Grade: Virtually all eggs sold in stores are graded for quality by the USDA. There are three grades: AA (firm, thick whites and high, round yolks with no defects); A (similar to AA, but whites are deemed “reasonably” firm); and B (thinner whites and wider, flatter yolks). Grade A is what’s typically found in stores.
  • Size: Size refers to the minimum weight per dozen eggs, as determined by the USDA, rather than the size of the individual eggs. Large (24 ounces per dozen) and extra large (27 ounces per dozen) are the most common.
  • Date: Most cartons include both pack and sell-by dates. The pack date (when the eggs were graded, washed and packed) appears as a three-digit code indicating the consecutive day of the year, while the sell-by date appears as an actual date. Eggs are good for three to five weeks past the sell-by date.
  • Color: Color is determined by the chicken’s breed, and eggs in stores are white or brown. Heritage-breed hens, like Araucana chickens, produce eggs in a rainbow of hues, from turquoise to coral. Color has little to do with flavor, which is determined by the hen’s diet.

Dietary Claims: When it comes to labels, sorting out a hen’s diet is almost as complex as defining our own:

  • Natural: “Natural,” according to the USDA, only means that a product may not contain any artificial ingredients or added coloring–essentially meaningless when it comes to eggs.
  • Organic: Eggs certified organic by the USDA means the hens’ feed is organic; in other words, free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and animal byproducts, as well as chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Organically raised hens also are antibiotic-free.
  • Hormone Free: You’ll often see eggs labeled hormone-free, but since the USDA prohibits the use of hormones in all poultry products, this applies to all eggs.
  • Antibiotic-Free: You’ll also find eggs labeled antibiotic-free. The USDA prohibits the use of prophylactic antibiotics in poultry, but some producers still treat sick hens. However, hens generally don’t produce eggs when sick.
  • Vegetarian: It seems odd that some eggs are labeled vegetarian, since it would seem all chickens are vegetarian. But conventional feed may include animal byproducts to boost the protein level in eggs, whereas vegetarian hens are fed food with no animal by-products. This label also helps strict vegetarians avoid omega-3-fortified eggs from chickens fed fish oil or marine algae.
  • Omega-3: Hens’ feed may include flaxseed, marine algae, or fish oil to enhance the omega-3 fatty acids in their eggs. Similarly, some producers add marigold extract to the feed to boost the lutein (good for eye health) in the yolks.
  • Pastured: Pastured is an emerging, unregulated term that producers are adopting to indicate their chickens have unfettered access to the outdoors, where they forage in the grass and supplement their diet with nutritious grubs, worms, and other goodies.

Treatment: There are also a handful of labels that speak to how a hen—and her eggs—were treated both before laying and after:

  • Cage-free: Cage-free means hens live indoors–in a henhouse–but are not caged. They may or may not have access to the outdoors, and still may live in overcrowded conditions.
  • Free Range: While the USDA defines “free range” for some poultry products, it’s a loose term that merely means the chickens have unspecified access to the outdoors. Another popular, undefined term: free-roaming.
  • Trimming: Chickens raised in crowded conditions will peck at each other; so many producers trim their beaks to prevent injury. Producers who don’t engage in this practice will tout “no beak trimming” on the label.
  • Humane: Humane Farm Animal Care’s Certified Humane program ensures hens have ample space to nest and perch. However, hens may be kept indoors and beak-trimming is allowed. The Animal Welfare Institute’s Animal Welfare Approved program is more generous with space and movement and prohibits beak-trimming.
  • Fertile: Fertile means there’s a rooster living amongst the hens, which some people prefer as more a more natural option. Some believe fertile eggs are more nutritious, which is not the case.
  • Pasteurized: Pasteurized eggs have been treated with heat to kill salmonella bacteria and are a good option for using raw eggs in uncooked applications like a salad dressing or if you’re fond of eating raw cookie dough.

By far our favorite choice for eggs though, and the least confusing of them all, is to find eggs from a local farmer (or, in Lia’s case, your own chicken coop). The taste and richness are unsurpassed.

A longtime editor, writer, and recipe developer, Alison Ashton is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef. She has worked as a features editor for a national wire service and as senior food editor for a top food magazine. Her work has appeared in Cooking Light, Vegetarian Times, and Natural Health as well as on her blog, Eat Cheap, Eat Well, Eat Up.

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Spinach-Gruyere Souffle

Nothing showcases the culinary power of eggs quite like a souffle. The yolks bind and enrich the base while the beaten whites leaven the souffle for its characteristic light, airy texture. This is a classic spring version, but you could add mushrooms, substitute different vegetables for the spinach, or swap the Gruyere cheese for a different variety. (Save the extra egg yolk to make Pasta with Asparagus and Prosciutto.) The souffle begins to deflate as soon as it comes out of the oven, so serve it immediately with a “Bon Appetit!” in your best Julia Child imitation. Pair it with a green salad dressed in Mustard-Shallot Vinaigrette and dry white wine for a light supper.

Spinach-Gruyere Souffle

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 servings

Spinach-Gruyere Souffle

Prepare the base for the recipe ahead of time and refrigerate, if you like, but wait until just before baking to combine the base with the beaten egg whites.


  1. 2 tablespoons plus 1/2 teaspoon canola oil, divided
  2. 2 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs
  3. 1 (13-ounce) bunch fresh spinach, washed and tough stems removed
  4. 1 garlic clove, minced
  5. 1 cup low-fat milk
  6. 3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
  7. Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  8. 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  9. 4 large egg yolks
  10. 5 large egg whites, at room temperature
  11. 3/4 cup (3 ounces) shredded Gruyere cheese


Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Position rack on lowest level in oven.

Oil a 1.5-quart soufflé dish with 1/2 teaspoon oil. Dust sides and bottom with breadcrumbs and chill.

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add spinach, with water clinging to it from washing, in batches. Sauté 2 minutes, or until wilted. Dry spinach thoroughly in a clean kitchen towel, squeezing out any excess moisture. Chop finely.

Heat milk in small saucepan over medium heat to 180 F (until tiny bubbles form around edge); do not boil.

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic; cook 30 seconds, or until fragrant. Add flour and cook 2 minutes, or until flour loses its raw taste, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and whisk in warm milk. Whisk constantly over medium heat for 1 minute, or until very thick, then whisk in salt and nutmeg. Whisk in egg yolks, one at a time. Stir in spinach. Scrape yolk mixture into a large bowl.

Using electric beaters, beat egg whites until stiff, satiny peaks form; do not overbeat. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold one-fourth of whites into yolk mixture. Repeat with remaining whites, sprinkling in a handful of cheese at a time. Gently scrape mixture into prepared dish.

Place dish in oven and reduce heat to 375 degrees F. Bake 35 minutes or until puffy and lightly browned.

  • Bette

    Pasteurized eggs are great for recipes and preparations where eggs are not cooked, or even UNDER cooked — as in the case of over easy, poached, sunnyside up or soft-boiled. The only way to ensure that pathogens are killed is to cook eggs until the yolk and white are hard (145 deg F).

    The other issue is cross-contamination in the kitchen.

    Pasteurized eggs are the ONLY way insure safety. Not only that, they taste really good.

    Remember, eggs are from animals. No matter where they live, chickens are animals that carry bacteria in their intestines and their waste. They should be handled no differently than raw chicken meat.

  • Paul

    See for more info

  • Heather(eatwelleatgreen)

    I like your round up. I agree the labelling is very confusing and I’ve actually written a similar piece on my blog. Just need to point out though, chickens are NOT vegetarian by nature. As you’ve pointed out a little further down, a hen will gobble up grubs and worms etc in pasture. So the only way to stop them doing that, and to accurately label eggs as vegetarian is to put the chickens in a cage and control their access to food. It’s an excellent example of greenwashing. The public thinks they are buying something a little greener, a little more humane when actually they are still getting a factory farmed product, with a few tweaks and new labelling.

    In Australia the organic label also has to mean the animals are treated humanely although that seems not to be the case with USDA labelling.

    The best option is to buy your eggs from a local farmer’s market and ask them the tough questions!

  • Alison Ashton

    Good point, Heather. Chickens do graze on grubs ‘n’ such, which means they’re not vegetarians, really. When I wrote the section about “vegetarian” feed I was thinking about other kinds of animal byproducts that might be in conventional chicken feed–byproducts of a sort chickens wouldn’t eat if left to their own devices.

    And I also like your point that USDA organic standards do not necessarily = humane. Be nice of it did, wouldn’t it?

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