You may have spotted the label on an egg carton at your local grocery store: “Pastured” eggs are a big business.
According to The New York Times, there is a growing consumer demand for these eggs, which are harvested from chickens that are allowed to roam freely outside.
However, the government doesn’t regulate the use of the “pastured” label, so pastured chickens may either have access to a small area outside their coop or an entire pasture. (“Cage-free” eggs, on the other hand, are ones in which the hen that laid them were allowed to walk freely inside a barn, but not outside.)
Pastured eggs don’t come cheap, though — most are about double the price of “normal” eggs.
But does that extra cost come with any additional nutritional value? Experts say yes.
A study from Penn State researchers that was published in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems found that pastured eggs contain more omega-3 fatty acids (which may help reduce cholesterol and blood pressure) and higher concentrations of vitamins A and E. However, the experiment found that pastured hens averaged 15 percent lower egg production than commercial hens.
Study co-author Paul Patterson, PhD, a professor of poultry science at Penn State, tells Yahoo Health that pastured eggs “can be” more nutritious than commercial eggs, but says it depends on the pasture that the hens are exposed to and what they’re fed.
His research found that hens had more vitamin E and A and omega-3 fatty acids regardless of whether they grazed on a grass, alfalfa-based, or clover-based pasture. However, Patterson says, his team restricted the amount of feed that hens could eat, forcing them to graze more, which typically isn’t the case with most pastured hens.
Registered dietitian Alissa Rumsey, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Yahoo Health that the hens’ diet makes a big difference in what nutrients end up in their eggs.
“Conventional eggs are typically fed grain-based feed, supplemented with vitamins and minerals,” she says. “With pastured eggs, chickens are allowed to roam free and eat plants and insects, supplemented with commercial feed (as they typically don’t forage enough on their own to get enough nutrients).” That more natural diet can boost the nutritional makeup of the eggs.
However, Patterson says that it’s possible to achieve a similar nutritional makeup simply by changing the hens’ feed in commercial eggs. “You can influence the nutritional profile of an egg very easily,” Patterson says, noting that you can buy “regular” eggs that are enhanced with omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and folic acid.
So, are pastured eggs better? It all depends on you.
“If you want to make a social decision to purchase eggs from pastured hens because you care about the welfare of the hens or think it’s more healthful, then you should buy pastured eggs,” Patterson says. (He points out, however, that pastured eggs have a greater carbon footprint.)
“In general, pastured eggs — if you can find them and afford them — are your best choice for more nutrients,” says Rumsey, adding that omega-3 enriched eggs are the next-best option, followed by cage-free or free-range eggs. But normal eggs are great, too, she says, since they’re still healthy and nutrient-rich.
Patterson says there’s a place for pastured hens on the market, but “it ultimately depends on the pocketbook of the individual.”
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