What Really Makes an Egg Good and Healthy?

Good Eggs

I think eggs get a bad rap sometimes. Indeed they are high in cholesterol, but they are packed with a long list of beneficial vitamins and protein that you need in your diet. Call us crazy, but we’re more concerned with the effects of processed food than cholesterol from “real” food. Getting all the good nutrients an egg has to offer means that we need to find the best possible source. If you’re an egg eater, we have a few tips for finding great eggs to incorporate into your menu.

How chickens should live

You see the egg cartons at the grocery store boasting things like, “free range,” or “cage free.” This is the optimal environment for chickens – running around farmland (or a designated area), free to roam, peck, eat, get fresh air, and lots of sunlight. Many of you have seen horrifying images of chickens crammed into cages or barns trampling all over each other (i.e. Food, Inc.). Talk about poor work conditions. These poor, tired, mistreated hens inevitably produce some sorry eggs. It’s not their fault.

Matt and I don’t purchase eggs from the store anymore because we prefer to get as close to our food source as possible. This means finding a local farmer who is happy to let us see the hens who are laying our eggs. A farmer shouldn’t be bashful about showing you his/her chickens, and you shouldn’t be bashful about asking to see them. This is your segue to asking about the animals’ diet.

What chickens should eat

At least equally important to how a chicken lives is what the chicken eats. A few years ago Matt went door-knocking around our area. Anyone who had a sign reading, “Eggs for Sale” got a visit from brave Mr. Matt. I think many of the farmers were surprised at the questions Matt fired at them, and Matt was equally surprised at some of their answers. He mainly wanted to find out what farmers were feeding their chickens. Some farmers responded with pride, revealing that their chickens were eating a diet of “all corn,” “soybeans,” and/or “grain.” NOT the answers Matt was looking for. We have talked to farmers who admit it’s near impossible to find chicken feed with non-GMO corn, soybeans, or grain. Chickens fed GMO feed will pass what they eat to their eggs – after all, they are what they eat.

We understand that in cold-weather climates, farmers have to supplement a chicken’s diet with some type of chicken feed. However, the majority of what they eat should always be grass, plants, worms, bugs, and dirt… basically anything they can find as they peck around outdoors. Some farmers even supplement with fruit and vegetable scraps. Just as humans are urged to eat a balanced diet that incorporates different food groups, a great egg comes from a hen eating a diet rich in variety. Matt finally found a farmer whose chickens were on a sensible, varied diet, and he won our dedicated business.

It’s easy to understand how taste and nutrient value of eggs is affected by the chicken’s diet. This is a really good reason to do your research and find a local farmer who knows grass and bugs are actually a good thing when it comes to a chicken’s diet.

You may have overlooked this when buying eggs in the past, but it’s time to start paying attention. Don’t feel bad if this is news to you, agribusiness works hard to disconnect you from your food source. It’s time to change, it’s time to get back in touch.

Good Eggs 1

How eggs should look

You know the eggs at the store that are all the same size, shape, and color? I don’t consider this a good thing. At first, farm fresh eggs grossed me out a little. They are usually different sizes, shapes, and a few different colors. Sometimes there may be a little gunk or remnants of feathers stuck to them. Now I know this is something to be appreciated. It means the farmer has nothing to hide and is more concerned with quality than appearance.

You may have noticed that there can be variation in the color of an egg’s yolk. If a yolk is a deep orange, this is a good indicator that it came from a healthy hen. Healthy, free range hens typically have a more diverse diet, and an opportunity to eat pigmented foods. The pigment is then transferred to the yolk.

Steer clear of yolks that are a dull yellow or even grayish in color. It most likely came from a hen raised in a tiny cage – stuffed alongside several others – fed a poor diet.

How to tell if eggs are old

When you’re buying fresh eggs from a farmer, you typically won’t see an expiration date printed on the carton. Matt and I learned a few tricks to determine approximately how old an egg is. These tricks are especially useful if purchasing eggs from the store, since they’re most likely older than a farm-direct egg.

Gently place your egg in a cold bowl of water. If your egg:

  • sinks to the bottom and lies on it’s side, it is very fresh, just a few days old.
  • sinks to the bottom but one end tilts up on an angle, it’s about 1 week old.
  • sinks to the bottom and stands up on end, it’s about 2 weeks old.
  • floats to the top, it’s an old egg, throw it out.

Keep your eyes peeled

Most farmers selling eggs will only have a small sign to advertise, making them a little difficult to find. On a lazy Sunday afternoon, go for a country drive and see if you can spot a few. Have your list of questions ready and only buy from farmers giving the answers you’re looking for. Buying locally will ensure a better price, and you’ll have the advantage of being more informed about where your food is coming from. If you’re not into Sunday drives, ask around at work for any leads on fresh eggs, or check Craigslist. I have discovered coworkers selling eggs at all of my jobs in the last 10 years! And when we moved to a new city we found several folks selling quality eggs on Craigslist.

If you live in a big city where it’s difficult to find a farm or farmer, all hope for good farm-fresh eggs is not lost. Big cities usually have a better selection of health food stores where local eggs are sometimes sold (i.e. food co-ops). Lift the lid and look for the size, shape, and color variety that distinguishes them from others.

We love our eggs, but we love our egg farmers even more. We have built great relationships with people we purchase eggs from, and learned so much about local food in the process. We challenge you to get out and put a little work into finding good food sources!

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Comments

  1. I have tried in vain to find organic feed for my hens. They free range in a very large yard, (coyotes and hawks would love it if I let them out of there but I won’t) and I feed scraps, but I need to feed them too, especially in winter, not many bugs around now. I have less than a dozen altogether.

    I looked into having organic feed shipped in. The shipping rates were greater than the bag of feed itself. I really wish there was an answer to this. I would love to feed my hens better. Even making food is nearly impossible because bulk orgainic grain is not to be had locally.

    Ironic. I live in Kansas surrounded by farms. I cannot get decent grain for my hens OR my horses. All GMO. Turns my stomach.Blah.

  2. Last week we watched the documentary, King Corn, which is about how genetically-modified and government subsidized corn has become the foundation of our entire food supply (used for animal feed and also made into a plethora of ingredients for processed foods). It was instant streaming on Netflix, in case anyone is interested in watching it. It really drives home the reality that our entire food system has become unnatural and harmful to not only the earth and conventionally raised animals (you wouldn’t believe the amount of pasture-land that should be used to naturally feed cattle that is being used to grow nutrient-poor, franken-corn to feed the unfortunate majority of our cattle, and chickens for that matter, in crowded, unsanitary feedlots), but also to us humans eating that food. Never before in the history of the world has our food supply resembled what it does now, where corporate profit drives everything and nature and health are ignored. Makes me crazy, as you can tell!

    That said, I think that the answer is more than simply reducing animal foods, but in demanding (and refusing to buy anything but) only those animal foods that have been raised responsibly and in the way animals were designed to live–like what you have done with sourcing eggs. There is a huge difference in nutritional quality between a steak (or butter, etc…) from a conventionally raised cow and that from a pasture-raised cow, not to mention the quality and length of life factor for the animal. The same goes for eggs and chickens, and any other animal food for that matter. Foods from properly raised animals are far safer and more nutritious, plus animals raised on pasture benefit the land by naturally fertilizing the land and improving its quality as well.

    Not sure if you’ve heard of Weston A. Price before, but he was a dentist who traveled the world during the 20’s and 30’s studying “primitive” people groups who were still living and eating according to their traditional ways, untouched by western civilization. None of the people groups were vegetarian and all of them ate in ways that didn’t even come close to current popular notions about what healthy eating is. All of the people groups were far healthier than most “civilized” people, and were virtually free of tooth decay, crowded teeth, and all of the common degenerative diseases and mental/emotional problems that were typical of the day and even more so now (heart disease, diabetes, cancer, etc..). The most robust of these healthy groups ate a very mixed diet of both vegetable and animal sourced foods, with a saturated fat intake from animal foods that far exceeds today’s average. As expected, when members of those same indigenous people groups “left” and adopted a more western diet of industrialized food, their physical and dental health deteriorated to resemble what was typical of the day for a western, “civilized” person, with their children (the first generation born under the new conditions) displaying the typical dental problems (cavities, crowded teeth, narrow arches…) as well.

    The Weston A. Price Foundation website is an awesome source of information on all things food and agriculture related. Here is a link to a great summary of Dr. Price’s findings on what constitutes healthy diets, based on his study of these pre-industrial people groups all over the world:
    http://www.westonaprice.org/basics/principles-of-healthy-diets

    And an interesting article addressing issues with The China Study as well: http://www.westonaprice.org/blogs/cmasterjohn/2010/09/22/the-curious-case-of-campbells-rats-does-protein-deficiency-prevent-cancer/

  3. Same here. We are in central Jersey. Finding organic feed is next to impossible. And again, our chickens can’t be free range because we live in suburbia, and there are laws in our town against letting the chickens run around the neighborhood. We do the best we can.

  4. Just a bit of info…
    for those who are concerned about the cholesterol in the egg yolk…
    Imagine, the Creator knew what to do about this…by making the egg white one of the highest foods in lecithin. Lecithin dissolves cholesterol.

    • Thanks for bringing that up RM, I totally agree… God always gives us what we need and makes things work perfectly together. We don’t worry one lick about the cholesterol in eggs.

  5. Hello! I have 6 hens, who are great. They are well fed and even this winter are still laying… I didn’t put them in a small cage, I converted my gazebo and made a run off it. I love having fresh eggs every day. But my point to writing is they too, eat grains, I have scratch for them (commonly known as “chicken crack” in our house, because they go nuts over it) and once a day, they have a pear, apple, or they love peach yogurt. I have also been saving the shells and when I have several,break up and put in the oven. Im no expert, but my hens are healthy and very happy!

  6. Again, I wrote down all the ingredients to make the feed, ( which are wondeful ingredients btw) because I would haveno problem making it myself, and then started researching someplace in Jersey where I can buy them, I would even drive over to PA if need be. No one sells most of these in bulk around here. And buying them in small amounts puts me in the same spot as paying more for shipping than the actual product of good feed.

    I will continue to research, but will still do the best I can within our budget.

  7. We have a small flock of chickens that have their own “yard” – we can’t free range them because of roaming dogs, cayotes and hawks, but they get the best food we can give them, plus scraps from our kitchen, and grass and weeds that I pull especially for them. It is hard to find organic feed to supplement with – I can’t wait to try the DIY organic chicken feed.
    We eat all the eggs we can and give away the rest to family and friends!

  8. Agreed. I researched a long while ago and saw this recipe link. Great idea save one small problem… NO ONE sells these items in bulk in my area. Pre made organics also not in my area.

    Get together with neighbors you say? Hmph. Like my neighbor to the north who farms GMO soybeans or my neighbor to the east who crop dusts or my neighbor to the west who pours roundup on the fenceline? Or maybe my neighbor to the south who shoots all dogs and coyotes on sight?

    Even the tiny organic human grocers do NOT sell bulk grains unless you think bulk is a couple of pounds to put in your grocery cart.

    I am not a pessimist, truly. But I am a realist. Right now there is no solution.
    I might as well live on the moon.

    Candace

  9. I am so glad you posted this. Just the other day I was at my grocery store buying eggs (cage free) and as I was reviewing the carton it said vegetable grain feed. That got me thinking of what are chickens suppose to eat. I live in NYC so going door to door at local farms is impossible. However, there are year round Greenmarkets (aka farmers markets) throughout the city and they all post online where the farmers are from and what they sell so you can do your research before ever hitting the market. I think I have found a couple of farms at a Greenmarket that I can get to that sell pasture grazed chicken eggs. I will be sure to ask questions when I go.

  10. Great Article again DIY! We have been finding a few restaurants lately using natural, free range eggs and couldn’t be happier! We love the change in belief many restaurants are going through. Lets hope it continues. Free range, hormone and antibiotic free food is a win whether you are buying it from a store or eating it in a restaurant.

    • Amen Dave! We are always so excited when we find another restaurant working hard to put the best on the menu. We are happy to pay a little extra if that’s what it takes for a healthier restaurant experience.

  11. Matt,

    Nice post. My father-in-law and brother-in-law just started raising free range mainly grass feed chickens on the family farm, so we now have infinite access fresh eggs. It’s been awesome. I would have never guessed it but they taste so much better than the pale yellow yoked eggs at the super market.

    Any readers in Berks County or Reading Pennsylvania can look up Deep Roots Valley Farm for some excellent well taken care of chickens and eggs. The picture of the chicken pen in that link just gorgeous.

    Also people should know that “Free Range” as defined by the USDA only says they need access to outside, but doesn’t make any statements about the quality or duration. Chickens with a door to a gravel yard can be considered “Free Range” even if they don’t go outside from what I can tell. So do your due diligence.

    • Great point about the “free range” label! It’s too bad things can be so misleading. Thanks for posting a link to the farm. I hope it benefits some of our readers living in that area!

  12. I have a neighbor (here in Indiana) with 17 chickens that run free during the day (I see them) and go in at night. I question her about raising chickens because I plan to have my own someday. Every Monday I clean my fruit and veggies for the week and then pick up my eggs. I drop off strawberry tops, soft berries, carrot ends and pulp after extracting the juice and veggie scraps for the chickens to peck through. When the weather warms up she is going to teach me more about them.

  13. My chickens free range under the protection of two Border Collies. The dogs each get one scrambled egg every day, so they have a vested interest in keeping the chickens safe. Past three winters, I’ve worked in a restaurant kitchen. On a good weekend I go home with 10 gallons of chicken feed (rice, potatoes and veggies) and almost 2 gallons of dog chow (beef, pork, lamb, chicken, duck, turkey and fish). Got some Dorking hens which are have been recorded laying in temperatures up to -25F – and that’s a good way to stay out of the stewpot during the long Vermont winter.