A chicken sits in hay next to three eggs.
Want the healthiest eggs? Get the best carton in the pecking order with these tips. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

The egg section at the grocery store can be intimidating.

Should you buy brown or white? Organic? Free-range? And what do those words really mean?

From a health perspective, free-range and organic are “definitely better,” said Krista Gast, a registered dietitian and certified health and wellness coach with the Spectrum Health Lifestyle & Culinary Medicine program.

Organic is a certification from the USDA that means chickens eat feed grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, fungicides or herbicides. They also can’t be given antibiotics or growth hormones.

Free range typically means uncaged, but the government does not regulate or have a definition for that label.

But even those descriptions have caveats. With organic, “there’s a question as to how well those guidelines are enforced,” Gast said.

And when buyers hear free-range, some may envision chickens running outdoors and eating healthy foods like grass, seeds and bugs.

But that’s not always the case, Gast said.

The only fool-proof method, she said, “is to know the farmer you’re buying from.”

Free-range vs. pasture-raised

Gast often buys her eggs at farm markets, she said.

Many small farmers can’t afford to get organic certification—which can cost thousands of dollars—but still raise their chickens in an organic, compassionate way that larger farms can’t always replicate.

“If it just says ‘free-range,’ maybe the chicken went outside for five minutes,” Gast said of large farms. “That’s not really what a lot of people are envisioning.

“It’s definitely better than caged, but there’s no standard: It’s a loose term,” Gast said. “Free-range means uncaged, but it can also be inside of large warehouses, where the chickens are packed in like sardines. They can’t walk around, can’t nest, can’t spread their wings, and generally don’t have access to the outdoors.

“If they’re raised in that way, with that stressful environment and have all these stress hormones coursing through their bodies, it affects their health. And if we eat it, it can get passed on to us.”

If you can’t get to a farm or farm market to see and hear how the chickens are being raised, look for an “American Humane Certified” label or a “pasture-raised” description on the egg cartons or farm’s website, she said.

“‘American Humane Certified’ means the chickens can access spacious areas, are given access to the outdoors, can run,” she said. “There’s a little more of standard and qualification to it.

“Pasture-raised chickens should have access to pasture space to perform natural behaviors. They should be able to peck for seeds and bugs, and that is kind of a hallmark of pasture-raised.”

As for brown versus white eggs, they just come from a different breed of chicken.

“The quality, nutrition and flavor are no different,” Gast said.

‘A great way to utilize eggs’

Eggs aren’t particularly healthy or unhealthy. They have a lot of cholesterol—185 grams per large egg—but the U.S. removed a cholesterol limit from its dietary recommendations in 2016, saying the limit was based on old, iffy science.

But for egg eaters, the difference between chickens raised in a healthy environment or a stressful environment is significant.

Chickens raised in a warehouse are “fed grains, or sometimes even other parts of chickens that had passed away,” Gast said. “This is kind of the ugly side of the business … and it isn’t heathy for us.”

But if a chicken is raised in a pasture, it eats grass, seeds, marine algae and other natural foods, and it becomes loaded with omega-3s.

Omega-3s are an essential fat that can lower blood pressure, lower the risk of heart disease and strokes, and help prevent arthritis and certain cancers, according to Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, so choosing your eggs carefully can have positive effects.

“The benefits from anti-inflammatory foods in your diet, not only eggs, but plant sources like walnuts and other healthy sources of omega 3s, they quell that chronic inflammation in the body that puts us at risk for diabetes, heart disease, cancers and Alzheimer’s,” Gast said.

“Having that low level of chronic inflammation—(partly attributed to) processed foods, a lot of added sugars, saturated and trans fats—can lead to obesity and all kinds of other bad outcomes.”

A good way to tell if the chickens were allowed access to the outdoors is the color of the yolk, said Jim Cross, a certified executive chef and chef supervisor for Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.

Chicken eggs that were allowed to feed on seeds, grass, bugs and have an overall healthy diet have a much more richly colored yolk.

“Ducks eat a lot aquatic plants and bugs, so the yolks are a deeper, richer orange color,” Cross said. Healthy chickens produce similarly vibrant eggs.

In addition to choosing eggs from well-raised chickens, what you eat with the eggs determines the overall health value of the meal. Consumers should eat their eggs with vegetables like peppers, kale and spinach to increase their healthiness, as opposed to processed foods and those with saturated fats like bacon, ham or lots of cheese, Gast said.

Cross, whose kitchen prepares 4,000 meals per day, goes through about 1,600 eggs per week. He buys all his personal eggs from local farms whose chickens live healthy lives, and both Cross and the hospital buy eggs from farms that don’t clip their chickens’ beaks—a very painful and unnatural process, he said.

In Cross’ eyes, an underutilized way to eat an egg is using it to make egg-based sauces like hollandaise or creme anglaise.

And if you use those egg sauces on top of well-cooked vegetables or in desserts, you add an additional level of flavor and texture to the meal.

“I don’t think eggs are usually considered for sauces because people think of gravies or cream sauces,” Cross said. “It’s a shame, because it’s a great way to utilize eggs in a different way.”