I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I go to the market, I feel overwhelmed with all of the labels that are stamped on the front of packages. Especially if it is with products I don’t normally purchase. I know they are there to help (and I am grateful they are there) but trying to decipher what each label means, sometimes means I am found spending my time googling in the middle of a busy grocery store.

There are some of the more obvious ones “Non-GMO Project Verified”, and, “Organic”. But then it gets a little trickier (specifically when it comes to chicken and eggs) with things like “Free Range” and “Cage Free” (No, they are not the same thing.) “Omega-3”, “Vegetarian” (we may have a good idea what this means for humans- but for a chicken?) “Pasture Raised”, and the list goes on. I went into the store to buy my in-laws a carton of eggs and left with a splitting headache and hours of googling (ok maybe not hours, but it felt like that.)

So, if you have ever found yourself wondering what all of these labels mean- no worries my friends, I am here for you! Let us walk through some of these labels together so you don’t have to spend your time getting frustrated in front of the egg cooler.  Fair warning though, this is meant to help you make the best and most educated decision for yourself and your health…Some of the truths behind these labels can be a little shocking.

FREE RANGE: Although this sounds like a fantastic label when it comes to our feathered friends the truth is there are no standards for what “free range” egg production actually is. Usually what this looks like is barns full of hens that (in some, not all cases) have had their beaks cut and there are no restrictions as to what the hens can be fed. Being they are labeled as “free range” this does mean they can have outdoor access (however, that can be as little as 5 minutes a day.) Being they are kept in barns rather than cages the hens are allowed to engage in some natural behaviors such as foraging and nesting.

CAGE FREE: Cage free hens are left out of cages but are most often kept inside of barns (generally they do not get to go outside) Being they are cage free though, they are able to walk, nest and spread their wings. All things they love to do.

VEGETARIAN: When you see a hen is fed a “vegetarian” diet, this means the hens feed is free of animal protein and could mean the hen has no opportunities to forage. Hens love to forage and will eat insects, so keeping them on a vegetarian diet is different from their natural omnivore diet.

OMEGA-3: This label means the hens diet has been fortified with flaxseed. Thus increasing the beneficial, brain boosting omega-3 fatty acids in their eggs.

PASTURE RAISED: This is a good one! The HFAC (or Humane Farm Animal Care) certification means the hens must be outdoors or rotated. They must have vegetation-covered pasture and are able to be out grazing and playing for a minimum of 6 hours every day! Each chicken must have 108 sq. ft. of space (which is huge in comparison to the 1.25 sq. ft. cage-free hens get.)

CERTIFIED ORGANIC: This label is the ONLY USDA regulated label. It requires that hens get outdoor access. It also requires them to be given feed without genetically modified organisms (GMOs), antibiotics, or animal products. As of 2016 only 4.2% of U.S. egg farms had this certification.

THE TAKEAWAY: In a fast-paced world, where at the end of the day we are just trying to make sure our families are fed well and balanced, something like choosing eggs shouldn’t take so much time to decipher which is the best overall for you AND the hens. Life is stressful enough without all of that. If it is at all possible, befriend a “backyard farmer”. Someone with happy hens that are free to be in their coop or outside foraging. Most of the time the chickens will be fed a conscious mixture of their favorite (and good for them) foods, as well as fruits and veggies and pesky bugs that they love to catch. Each chicken can lay between 150-250 eggs per year, so it is very possible your neighbor is looking for someone to take a few dozen eggs off their hands.

If befriending a backyard farmer isn’t possible, then just simply try to make the best decision for you and your health needs, as well as what you feel is most important to the hens (if you worry about the conditions and treatment of your food sources.)

By taking a few moments out and doing a minute or two of research today, moving forward you will know off hand exactly what brand (and label) you are going for, and be content with your choice.