The idea of being able to go out to your hen house and collect some fresh eggs for breakfast, or buy pasture raised eggs at a farmers’ market, is appealing.
But is there really a difference in the color, taste and nutritional content, or are we just happy to think that because they are fresh from the farm they must be better? We checked the research that proves there is a difference.
Eggs from hens that roam freely and are given the opportunity to try a varied diet of nutritious grains, grubs and fresh greens, as well as getting some sunshine and exercise have been proven to produce eggs that are higher in calcium, lutein, Vitamin A, E, and D. Yolk color, yolk density, freshness, and shell thickness can also differ from commercial eggs.
How Fresh Is Your Store-bought Egg?
Unfortunately we don’t really know. The carton will come with a sell-by date – usually around three weeks after packaging, but how long did it take to get from the egg farm to the production line for packaging? A week or more?
The FDA recommendation is to use your eggs within three weeks of purchasing them. If you are buying from a farmers’ market, the eggs may vary from a day to a week old – small scale farmers have to collect during the week for their weekly (usually on a Saturday) market.
If the hens are on your own property, you will probably be collecting twice a day, so the farmers’ market or your produce will definitely be fresher. Eggs that are not as fresh will have a runnier white in the pan.
Can Farm Eggs Make You Sick?
Eggs have a permeable membrane, so should there be chicken poop on the egg and it stays there for weeks before the egg is used, you run the risk of E coli or salmonella when the egg is cracked, and they contaminate it.
This is true of both commercially and pasture raised hens, which is why nesting boxes and the hens’ walkways to the boxes must be kept clean so hens don’t track in poop to their nests.
Caged eggs, while a very cruel system for the hen, are organized so the egg rolls down to be collected as soon as it is laid, minimizing the risk for poop contamination.
We’ve all tried making perfect fried eggs and get annoyed when the egg is cracked and the yolk just disintegrates as it slides into the pan. However, when it comes to the egg from a pasture raised chicken the yolk doesn’t break as easily. There are a number of possible reasons for this.
Pasture raised chickens are free to run around and get a varied diet – nibbling at various plants, scratching for insects or grubs and sometimes running to catch a flying insect, in addition to their food rations provided.
Commercial chickens kept for egg-laying are often fed a ‘balanced diet’, but it can run heavy on corn, which simply doesn’t seem to provide sufficient protein which can account for yolks that break easily.
Another factor is that older hens tend to lay eggs with weaker yolks. Holding the yolk in its place within the egg is the vitelline membrane but as the egg gets older the moisture from the egg white gets absorbed into the yolk, making it a bit bigger, but it also weakens the vitelline membrane.
A fresh farm egg will have a domed yolk whereas an older commercially farmed egg has a flatter yolk. Farm eggs are also said to have a creamier yolk compared to the runnier yolk of commercial eggs.
How Long Do Homestead Hens Lay Compared to Commercially Farmed Hens?
The average hens will lay for between 5 to 7 years, but there have been reports of hens laying up to 10 years of age – which is about the limit of the life span of the average hen.
As the hens gets older the egg production will decrease. In commercial production the hen will only lay for about 72 weeks before being sent off to be slaughtered as it’s all about maximum profit.
Some months ago, I was walking around a property where some very happy hens were scratching when the owner commented, “These hens aren’t laying much now – time to get rid of them.”
When I walked inside I asked his wife quietly if he slaughtered the hens. “Nah, he’s a big softie – it’s all talk,” she said, “What he does is just bring in a couple more younger hens. They die of old age.”
It does seem only right that if hens have been giving eggs year upon year that they be allowed to fossick around in the garden until their time is up.
In commercial production large numbers of hens are crammed into small spaces, without room to move, consequently their bones weaken and they become a liability.
It is a misconception to believe that light color hens lay eggs with light color yolks, and brown hens produce eggs with darker yolks. The hen’s breed only affects the color of the eggshell, not the contents.
The yolk color is determined by what the hen eats. Commercially produced eggs have a medium yellow yolk, so when used to eating this type of egg, it can come as a shock when you encounter the deeper color of some farm eggs. The first reaction usually is, “What is wrong with this egg?”
Research into hen diets has shown that, when they eat various bugs, natural seeds and grasses, the carotenoid pigments in certain plants, known as xanthophylls, can affect the color of the egg.
Commercial laying hens are usually fed a mix running heavily to corn, so the yolks have a medium yellow color.
Supplementing pasture raised hens’ diets with grated carrot, pumpkin or butternut will result in deeper colored yolks, and if they are fed red capsicum, the yolks can be a deep orange red.
Does It Matter Whether One Yolk Is Yellower than Another? Yes, it does. It has been found that yolks with a deeper color are richer in lutein.
This study mentions the findings that macular degeneration and cataracts in older people can be avoided through higher consumption of lutein, and that although this is found in green leafy vegetables and the yellow-orange vegetables the most easily absorbed source for the human body is from egg yolk (in fact 200-300% more bioavailable – that means utilized and absorbed, compared to plant-sourced lutein).
One has to be careful as major egg producers put additives into the hens’ diets to make sure egg yolks are darker. However, when I compared caged eggs to a fresh egg on the farm where we are staying, the farm egg unexpectedly had the lighter yolk.
One would think it would be the other way around – but not if caged hens are fed additives as reported here. I checked on the farm hens’ diet, and found they are given sunflower seed, kitchen scraps, some chopped fruit and forage around the farmyard for the rest of their food.
Egg size is determined by the size of the chicken – the bigger the breed the bigger the egg.
At the start of her laying life, a hen will give smaller eggs until she comes into maturity and full egg production after which egg size may taper off as well as the number of eggs as she reaches ‘old age’.
A pasture-raised chicken is not going to give eggs of a different size to commercially reared hens. In fact, their eggs may sometimes be a bit smaller if they are doing a lot of running around.
What will change the egg size is the diet the chicken is fed – amino acids, protein and linoleic acid intake will help increase size.
Hens fed a fat-free diet lacked linoleic acid, found in oil producing plants, which negatively affected egg size. Sunflower seeds, for example, are good for chickens, and pasture-raised hens would get a variety of seeds naturally, as well as protein in the form of worms, grubs and other insects.
Hens also need to be secure and quiet in order to produce decent size eggs; stressed hens will not produce the size or quantity required.
The shells of farm eggs are usually thicker and harder than those of store-bought eggs that were laid in commercial egg-producing units.
Pasture raised chickens spend their days outside soaking up vitamin D, while factory chickens are stuck inside eating a feed that is carefully balanced, but often contains antibiotics to control the diseases that can run rife when thousands of birds are crowded together. Higher calcium and vitamin D3 levels mean naturally stronger egg shells.
Unfortunately, keel bone damage can affect the ability of the hen to produce calcium, and hence the calcium in the egg.
This keel bone damage can occur when the hens are roughly handled, or when they attempt to fly to a higher perch and miss, landing awkwardly on the keel bone. It can occur in commercial egg production units as well as with pasture raised hens.
Just imagine the keel bone damage if hens start flying around into solid objects, and missing high perches if they are in a panic. Just by looking at an egg you won’t know if this damage has occurred, though, until you crack the shell, and realize it is brittle.
Most supermarkets sell brown eggs as customers believe they are ‘better’ but that is a fallacy. Whether hens produce white, brown, speckled, or blue eggs doesn’t matter – it’s what is inside that counts.
Egg color is graded from 0 to 9 – white eggs are 0 and the darkest brown egg is a 9. The Black Copper Maran breed, originating from France, will produce a chocolate brown egg, with eggshell color being graded between a 5 and a 9 on the scale of ‘brown’.
Some more unusual breeds of chickens produce blue eggs – the color can vary from a pale blue to quite an intense sky blue.
The Cream Legbars, Ameracaunas, and Araucanas produce blue eggs, while the Easter Egger breed, a mix of one of the three breeds mentioned and a brown egg-laying hen, produces a variety of eggs ranging from olive to blue, and sometimes even pink.
These colors are popular at farmers’ markets, where they come from small scale egg producers, but the color does not affect the nutritional content.
The taste test was conducted by two people after I had fried the two types of egg. The farm yolk was just slightly creamier, but it was the egg white that surprised, the yellow farm egg having an opaque quality to the white, which was slightly firmer and definitely a little tastier. The caged egg white was slightly translucent, and less substantial.
Photo 5 and Photo 6
It appears then that fresh pasture raised farm eggs, according to the scientific research, are slightly better in terms of freshness and nutrition than commercially produced store-bought eggs. Our little test showed that real farm eggs are just that bit tastier, too.
As a child I wanted to grow up and marry a farmer… simply because it was so different from my life right on the shores of the ocean. Well, I didn’t marry a farmer but a surfer instead. The urge, however, to grow stuff and make great food for a big family never left. We are on acreage with a sea view and easy access to fresh caught crayfish and other seafood – the best of both worlds. As an artist and writer I enjoy creating new recipes, tweaking traditional ones, and sharing the results not only with family and friends, but online.