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How to Read an Egg Carton (And Why Terms Like "Cage-Free" Are Misleading)

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I’m a well-meaning egg buyer. I know about the cruelty of cages, the terrible things that happen to chicken beaks, and the speed at which avian flu can wipe out a barn of tightly packed hens, so I’m always careful to buy cartons that advertise “Free-Range” and “Cage-Free.” But as it turns out, these terms can have confusing definitions when it comes to chicken welfare and the quality of the egg.

Photo by James Ransom

Some of the most common egg cartons terms imply a much happier hen environment than is actually practiced. While cage-free environments are a step up from the battery cages that still dominate the egg industry, they aren’t much better. Before she got into the egg farming, Betsy Babcock of Handsome Brook Farm in upstate New York believed that "'cage-free' eggs came from chickens outdoors.” Not necessarily so: Even though organic eggs require outdoor access for the hens, the access is so minimal that most of the chickens never go outside. Many chickens, she said, “have absolutely no access to the outdoors and have as little as 1 1/4 square feet indoors, and they’re kept in dimly lit barns with no windows.” At organic free-range farms, chickens “get a window and access to the outside which means they can go out to a little patio strip of grass.”

It's important to note however, that this is not the case with all cage-free eggs. When I met with Serena Schaffner, a representative from the American Egg Board, she told me that some cage-free operations do grant access to the outdoors and give hens plenty of space, even though it's not required for that particular certification.

Photo by James Ransom

There's a growing movement among egg farmers to provide an environment to hens like the ones we imagine when we read these terms—a movement for farms provide at least 108.9 square feet per chicken outdoors during the day and two square feet indoors in the coop at night, for chickens to roam through fields munching on grass and bugs.

Photo by James Ransom

Of course there are several options out there, and pasture-raised eggs are among the most expensive. The best route? Learning what you can before you buy. Here’s how to navigate the evolving terms often seen on egg cartons, according to Betsy, the Egg Nutrition Center, and The Incredible Edible Egg—and what some of the biggest ones mean:

The numerous egg options available at one of our editor's local bodegas.
The numerous egg options available at one of our editor's local bodegas. Photo by Amanda Sims

Living Conditions:

Conventional: Eggs laid by hens in small enclosures in windowless hen houses, sometimes with barely enough room to flap their wings. These are often the least expensive eggs available.

Cage-Free: Eggs from hens that are not confined to battery cages. The hens must have enough room to turn around.

Free-Range: Eggs from hens that have access to the outdoors and may forage for grass and bugs, but this can sometimes mean the all the hens in one barn have to share as little room as a tiny screened-in porch that fits only a few chickens out of thousands.

Pasture-Raised: Eggs laid by hens who have at access to pasture area. However, this term is not recognized by the USDA, so while Betsy defines "pasture-raised" as having access to at least 108.9 square feet outdoors per chicken, she said she’s seen “pasture-raised" egg farms that “provide as little as 14 square feet.” The best way to find out how much land the chickens are offered is to either check the farm’s website where the numbers are often listed, or to call them directly and ask.

Certified Organic: This is one of the only federally regulated egg terms, and requires that the hens have access to the outdoors—but, as with "free-range," take the term "access to the outdoors" with a grain of salt. The feed they’re fed must also be certified organic.

Photo by James Ransom


Yolks: While yolk color was once a great indicator of the quality of an egg—with bright orange eggs indicating free-range chickens with access to grass—some caged hens are now fed traces of alfalfa to artificially up the plant feed in the diet and yield a brighter yolk.

Shells: Brown and white eggs have no nutritional or flavor differences.

Dates and Numbers:

Expiration Date: The dates marked on egg cartons are an indicator of how long they should be kept on store shelves, but according to the Egg Nutrition Center, eggs can safely be eaten up to three weeks past the expiration date.

Julian Date: Many egg cartons are stamped with an eleven-digit number known as the Julian Date, which includes information about the day the eggs were packed. The first three numbers will tell you the day, which go from 001 for January 1st to 365 for December 31st. Eggs can safely be eaten up to five weeks beyond this date.

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“The age of the chicken determines the size of the eggs they lay,” Betsy told me. Chickens start by laying what they call peewee eggs (15 ounces per dozen), which are usually not sold and are almost all whites, and can lay up to jumbo eggs (30 ounces per dozen). Around 20- to 25-weeks old, they’ll start laying large eggs. There is no difference in the nutrition, proportionally, but keep in mind that most baking recipes refer to large eggs.

Editors' Note: We've made changes to this article that include editing content from one of the sources, as we felt the original article was too focused on one source of information.

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Tags: Advice, Farms