Free Range Eggs and More: What You Need to Know

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Spring is a great time to enjoy fresh eggs from free range chickens, because hens that are allowed to eat spring grass produce fantastic, nutrient-rich eggs.

You may not think of eggs as a seasonal food, but eggs are in fact a biological product, and as such follows an animal’s life cycle. “But I can get eggs anytime I want,” you say? Well yes, of course you can. That’s thanks to our modern industrial food production and distribution system. We can all enjoy a seemingly unlimited supply of year-round eggs (and strawberries and tomatoes and apples and juicy steaks … you get the idea). But it wasn’t always so. And this year-round supply comes at a price. Lucky for you, there’s no better time than spring to learn about real eggs, because there’s no better time to enjoy them!

1. Eggs are Seasonal
2. Eggs are Colorful
3. Eggs are Healthy
4. Eggs are Legislated
5. Good Eggs Come From Good Farms

Lesson 1: Eggs are Seasonal

When young lady hens are about six months old, they start laying eggs, and continue to do so for about a year. They produce the most eggs during the first couple months of the cycle. You’re more productive in nice weather too, right?

Then, when daylight and temperature decrease in the fall, egg production declines, too. After all, it was the gorgeous sunshine that was stimulating the birds’ egg-laying hormones. Plus, in cold temperatures the ladies divert their egg-laying energy into keeping-warm energy. You stay in, throw on the sweats and curl up with a blanket in the winter, right?

Production continues to decline until most birds take a rest for several weeks in the winter. Now full of new vigor, they begin the cycle all over again.

So springtime is egg time. Maybe that’s why folks started dyeing eggs for Easter — what better way to celebrate an abundance of fresh eggs than with bright party colors?

In large egg factories, however, artificial light and heat stimulate off-season egg production. The birds don’t get their natural rest time, and instead keep on pumpin’ out eggs. You can decide whether you want to eat stressed-out eggs from stressed-out birds. I don’t.

Lesson 2: Eggs are Colorful

Speaking of Easter egg colors, why are some eggs brown and others blue? And what about those white eggs in the grocery store — is that natural?

Yes, it’s natural. The color of eggs is actually determined by the breed of the chicken. Stark white eggs are ubiquitous mainly because commercial chicken breeds make up most of the laying hen stock in the country, and their eggs are white (though some large producers may employ a process that further whitens the shells). Here’s a short list of natural egg colors by breed, and you can find more detailed info on this Handy-Dandy Chicken Chart.

  • Rich dark brown: Barnevelder, Marans, Rhode Island, Welsumer
  • Light brown: Buckeye, Chantecler, Plymouth Rock, Wyandotte
  • Cream: Ancona, Andalusian, Dorking, Dutch
  • White: Appenzeller, Buttercup, Hamburg
  • Blue or blue-green: Ameraucanas, Araucanas

Lesson 3: Eggs are Healthy

Since the late 1950s, eggs have had a bad rap for their potential to cause heart disease. But many new studies are now turning the conventional advice to avoid animal fats and cholesterol on its head. It would seem that dietary fat and cholesterol do not cause heart disease.

Not only are eggs not bad for you, but they are great for you. Eggs are a nutrient-dense food, providing a complex array of both macro- and micro-nutrients. And new research into the differences between eggs from hens raised naturally on pastures rather than in factory farmed cage operations has revealed a host of other nutritional plusses. Pastured eggs are higher in lutein and zeaxanthin; folic acid; vitamins A, B12, D and E; beta carotene; and omega-3 fatty acids. Learn more about the health benefits of eggs in Meet the Real Free-Range Eggs and at Eat Wild.

Lesson 4: Eggs are Legislated

The differences between true pastured operations and factory farms cannot be overstated. Real “free range” or “grass fed” eggs come from birds that run around outside, in sunshine and on fresh grass; have room to move around, flap their wings and get exercise; eat a diverse diet of grasses, weeds, bugs, seeds, etc.; and behave, well, naturally. Some egg producers say their eggs are free range, because labeling regulations simply require that they provide a little door at the end of the facility to give the birds access to the outside, which may or may not feature any grass at all, or enough room for all the birds to wander freely. You can learn more about the differences between industrially produced and naturally produced eggs in the following articles:

How Do Your Eggs Stack Up? 

Free Range vs. Pastured: Chicken and Eggs 

Good Eggs Come From Good Farms

Simply knowing that you want eggs from happy hens with plenty of pasture under their feet may not be enough to help you find them in the grocery store, given the complexity of claims on egg cartons these days. (See How to Decode Egg Cartons.) But the best way to be sure you’re getting eggxactly what you want is to talk to the people who produce the eggs. And of course the best way to do that is to buy directly from farmers!

Visit farmers markets or purchase eggs through community supported agriculture (CSA) operations. To locate markets and CSAs near you, check out the food-finding databases featured in How to Find Local Food and Farmers. Not only will you be able to find better tasting, more healthful and more environmentally preferable food this way, but you’ll also connect with your community, circulate food dollars in your local economy and provide farmers with a much more sustainable income than they can get by participating in the industrial food complex.

According to Joel Salatin, who produces real pastured eggs, “When it happens, this synergism between season, farmer and patron is a dance that honors the natural ebb and flow of production. Cyclical menus stimulate an awe and respect for local food connections. And such conscious planning is good for pocketbooks — of both farmer and patron.” Read more about how you can support passionate farmers raising healthy, natural food in Eat in Sync with the Seasons.

And finally, for all your chicken and egg knowledge needs, visit our Chicken and Egg Page.

Did you know that cooks once used eggs differently at different times of the year? For example, when fresh spring grass is abundant and the yolks are plump and bright orange as a result, you might serve up gorgeous frittatas or homemade egg noodles. Then later in the season, you’d concentrate on recipes that benefit from high quality egg whites, such as a lovely meringue pies. Do you have any ideas for making the best use of fresh spring eggs? Post your comments below.