Let’s set the record straight on eggs. A recent string of events led me to question the transparency and overall quality of the “healthy” egg brands we might be purchasing in presumably health-conscious grocery stores like Whole Foods, Sprouts, Natural Grocers, etc.
What was that event? It started with an Instagram post from Vital Farms, a brand that I had loved and advocated for previously because I thought I was getting high quality, organic, soy/grain free, non-GMO, pasture raised eggs. Turns out I wasn’t.
As a functional nutritional practitioner, quality of food matters to me, and if I am going to spend $6 or $7 dollars on eggs, then I expect it to be worthwhile. I also don’t want to promote something to my community and clients that doesn’t have their best health interests in mind.
I set out on a journey to have my questions answered by chicken farmers, and to see if there were any brands out there raising 100 percent pasture raised organic hens on a corn and soy free diet. I researched eight different egg brands, and emailed quite a few for comment.
A lot of people have corn (a grain) and soy allergies or sensitivities, and some simply do not want to support the U.S. corn and soy industries, which are controlled by big corporations that are only interested in turning a profit. Most U.S. corn and soy, especially soy, is genetically modified, and contains phytoestrogens that can cause digestive and hormonal issues for a majority of us.
As it turns out, this journey was more convoluted than expected.
A lot of people, including myself, were very upset to find out that the eggs they thought they were eating from Vital Farms were not as “healthy.” Vital Farms offers three different types of eggs
The frustrating part about this is the realization that the black carton eggs (which are the most affordable) are conventional, meaning they feed their hens GMO feed, with who knows what else.
The carton packaging is incredibly misleading and confusing. Nowhere on the carton does it convey this information. Instead, they use phrases and wording like “freedom to forage outdoors,” “happy hens,” “made with fresh air and sunshine” and “108 sqft per bird.”
To someone reading, all of that information conveys the exact opposite of reality. Yes, the hens may have access to outdoors and are foraging some of the time, but they are being fed a potentially genetically modified, non-organic and toxic diet. That is not good for the bird, nor for us. But, these yolks are so vibrant orange, brighter than the organic eggs, which people associate with more nutrients (we’ll get to this below).
I wanted to know what percentage makes up the supplemental feed vs. how much of their diet comes from foraging grass, bugs and worms in their natural habitat.
When asked for comment, Vital Farms said, “Our focus is on animal welfare. Regardless of the feed type our girls live the best lives every day. Although not organic or non-GMO, our traditional feed has essential nutrients that our girls may not get from foraging in the pastures. We offer our three different cartons so you can choose what value works best for you, your values and your lifestyle.”
They let me know that their hens forage 50 percent of the time, and so 50 percent of their diet also comes from corn and soy. They also claimed to be “grain free,” but corn is in fact a grain. When I pressed further to ask what percentage is soy vs corn and other ingredients, they did not respond with specifics. They also would not comment on what exactly “conventional” feed means, where they source from and what the difference is between that and their organic feed. Highly disappointing.
Basically, if you purchase the black carton eggs from Vital Farms (which appear to be the most popular and widely available), you are paying roughly $6 for nothing special or different than any other conventional free range/pastured egg brand.
My biggest question to Vital Farms is: Why not offer only one product: organic, non-gmo and pasture raised, which is the best option for the hens and for the humans!
Another popular “pastured” egg brand is The Happy Egg, Co. This is also a brand that I have purchased in the past. When I reached out asking about their hens’ diet, here’s the statement they sent me:
“We feed all Happy Egg hens a specially formulated diet of corn and soy, mixed with vitamins and minerals, to provide the best nutrition for healthy hens and great eggs. Because the hens spend their days outside on more than eight acres of pasture, their daily feed is supplemented by a pasture-foraged diet, including grass and bugs. Our regular Free-est of the Free Range and Heritage Breed are not certified USDA Organic. However, ALL Happy Egg hen’s feed is free of added meat, bone meal or hormones and antibiotics. In addition, Happy Egg hens producing organic eggs are fed a 100 percent USDA Organic, non-GMO diet.”
They also make a claim on their website that the soy used in their hens feed does not transfer to the humans who consume the eggs. I wasn’t buying that, so I dug further. They wrote back, “Because we use very small amounts of this product in our feed the properties of soy do not transfer. We do not say this about corn. We do not provide any medical advice or recommendations to consumers when they inquire. We solely give what we have found in regards to the transfer of these nutrients to our eggs when asked.”
Similar to vital Farms, Happy Egg also let me know that all of their farms are up to organic standards, whether the hens lay organic eggs or not! They claimed to never use pesticides, antibiotics or hormones added to any feed for any bird because “these three things are incredibly harmful to our girls and we do not stand for it.”
I get that it is incredibly expensive and time-intensive to get the USDA Certified Organic Label, but I was still seeing a disconnect here. They would not reveal what other grains are in the feed, just that it is specially formulated.
Chino Valley Ranchers does offer a “soy-free” feed version to some of their hens, but they are free range, not pasture raised. They also offer pasture raised eggs that do not bear the “soy free” label. In one of their blog posts, they share that they worked with an experienced nutritionist to formulate a feed that is nutritional but included no soy.
It comprises “a combination of organic grains and seeds, with a boost of organic flaxseed to increase omega-3 fatty acids.” They also noted that they sent their eggs to a lab to confirm that there was no trace of soy in the product.
Circle C Farms in Florida was the only farm that I turned up as raising their hens on a 100 percent foraged diet. On their website, they claim “Our all natural 100 percent Pasture Raised and Grass-fed Eggs are Non GMO, Soy Free, Corn Free, Gluten Free sustainably and humanely farm raised. Our flock of laying hens are never given any hormones or antibiotics, and they live on pesticide and chemical free grassy pastures where they hunt, peck, scratch and eat freely day and night. We are famous for our pasture raised poultry, because they roam on open pastures and enjoy their time in the sun and under the palm trees.”
That seems incredibly promising! But as a local farm in Florida, they are able to produce small batches of eggs and sell directly to the community. I suspected all along that the answer to this conundrum would be to buy local from trusted farmers.
I did not turn up any farms in Colorado that were doing the same as Circle C, but I did find Cottonwood Creek Farms that sources local ingredients for their hens’ feed and raises them in pastures. On their cartons they transparently say that zero pesticides and herbicides are used, each hen gets 715 square feet per pasture, hens are rotated in mobile coops and all feed is locally grown on their Colorado farm.
On their website FAQ page, they comment on soy free feed: “We are busy sourcing local ingredients to make a soy-free ration. We feel it is our responsibility to use the resources closest to us and many of the ingredients used in soy-free rations are not grown in Colorado fields. We’ll keep you informed of our progress.”
I reached out for additional commentary but haven’t heard back yet. If I do, then I will update this article accordingly. So far, this is my frontrunner egg brand.
Even though the egg yolks aren’t as vibrant orange as other brands with less transparent and healthy practices, it doesn’t necessarily mean a lesser quality or nutrient-dense product. Egg yolk color will change depending on the time of year, what grains, minerals and vitamins are in the supplemental feed and what foraging foods are available. Since we have seasons in Colorado, the land will change quite drastically over time.
According to Organic Valley, yolk color depends almost entirely on pigments in the food chickens eat. If a hen eats plenty of yellow-orange pigments called xanthophylls, those pigments will make a darker orange egg yolk.
Yellow corn or alfalfa meal will yield medium-yellow yolks and a wheat or barley based diet will yield lighter-colored yolks.
The yolk is also where all of the nutrients are, including fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, essential fatty acids like DHA, ALA and EPA omega-3s, and minerals and vitamins like calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, zinc, choline, carotenoids, and B vitamins.
I do want to point out a common misconception. Pasture raised does not indicate anything about the type of feed the hens are given. It is only an indication of how much square feet per bird is required.
The American Humane certification for “pasture raised” requires 108.9 square feet per hen of outdoor area during the daytime. While this is a large number, it is divided equally into five separate pastures that the birds are rotated through as the land “wears down.”
The birds are only given access to one section of pasture at a time. While in their section, they are allotted 21.6 square feet per bird. For free range eggs bearing the American Humane certification, they are required at least 21.8 square feet per hen during daytime.
In the case of Happy Egg Co, they told me they have one large pasture that the girls roam on year round. A spokesperson from the company commented, “As creatures of habit, the girls appreciate not having their schedules changed.”
The Certified Humane label (the label that Vital Farms carries) only requires 2 square feet per bird (or 2.5 acres per 1,000 birds) and only six hours of time spent outdoors. As it appears, farms that bear the American Humane’s certification, get 10 times the amount of space.
For many of these farms, the hens have a place to go indoors when the sun goes down. Happy Egg commented, “When the sun rises, our barn doors open and the girls are free to run around outside in the pasture or hang out in the shade of the barn. From the moment the sun rises to the moment the sun goes down, it is completely up to each girl on how she spends her day.”
The thing to note is that these various labels and certifications are confusing. The USDA doesn’t even regulate the “pasture raised” label so it’s like the wild wild west when it comes to food marketing and labeling. You can read more about labeling here. There’s also a lot of confusion on what organic means. You can learn more about that label in a blog I wrote that pulls back the covers on what “organic” truly means.
So what is the consensus on this? Almost all the farms I researched or spoke to use some variation of corn and soy. While it is possible to source a corn and soy free chicken feed, a lot of these big box brands aren’t doing it. I suspect because it’s more expensive and not as readily or easily available.
According to Mile Four, you can purchase or make your own chicken feed that is corn and soy free. This feed typically contains field peas and other grains like sorghum (which is gluten free) as the source of protein and carbs.
But one thing that kept coming up consistently is the fact that hens actually require a certain amount of grains in their omnivorous diet. In fact, when foraging, hens are often looking for grains to feed on in addition to grass, bugs and worms.
But that doesn’t mean grains should make up the majority of a supplemental feed. Primal Pastures was the most transparent in their feed ingredients, stating, “The corn in our supplemental feed makes up a small percentage of our chickens’ diet, otherwise consisting of bugs, grass, organic alfalfa, wheat, limestone, diatomaceous earth, grit, and other natural ingredients that chickens feed on in the wild.”
It is worth nothing that they raise poultry for consumption but doesn’t appear that they raise hens for eggs.
All this to say that a quest for corn AND soy free feed is not only unrealistic, it might not be the best for the animal. Grains may be a necessary evil in chicken feed, but the same can’t be said for soy. Soy is not essential for a hen’s diet, it just happens to be a cheap commodity in the U.S. that contains necessary proteins.
Primal Pastures said it best: “Instead of looking for 100 percent grain-free everything, look for animals that live outside on pasture 24/7 and are eating a species-appropriate diet.”
And I would second that. As a consumer and a health practitioner, I am more concerned about soy in chicken feed than grains/corn, especially if it only makes up a small percentage. I also know that I prefer to buy local and support local ecosystems.
You may feel differently and that’s OK. But I hope you are now armed with the information to ask the right questions and decipher for yourself which eggs are the best for you and your beliefs, the animals and the environment.