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Chicken vs. Egg: It’s not what you think

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

We all know the dilemma: Which came first… The chicken or the egg?

At this point in our lives, does it matter? We’ve got bigger and better fish, er.. I mean eggs to fry. The burning question nowadays doesn’t involve chicken or egg punctuality. I have yet to see a shopper at the grocery store debating this concept. Instead, the mystery gathers around the information found on an egg carton.

Our current debate points to egg type confusion:

  • Cage free eggs

  • Free range eggs

  • Organic eggs

Oh wait…. Just when you thought there weren’t any other options, there’s more!

  • Cruelty free eggs

  • Conventional eggs

  • Pasture raised eggs

It’s maddening. It’s eggravating! Ok… that was a bit over the top.

Let’s take a moment to look at each one of the egg types.

Cage free eggs

large flock of white chickens with red combs in building

Photo: Mark Stebnicki

When I see an egg carton boasting “cage free,” I’m thinking this is great! No more birds stuffed in a cage. They are free to frolic through clover fields and bask in the sunlight. Little Henrietta is free to hang out under the shade tree with her chicks. She can choose to take a stroll along the farm yard greeting other animals.

Not so fast.

Yes, Henrietta is free to chat with her friends. Although she’s not in a cage - she’s confined to a building. This could be a small shed or a large structure. [1] It all depends on the number of birds housed.

The birds will have nesting boxes and perches. [1] So there’s that. But the chickens are probably crowded. Some people also refer to cage free eggs as barn raised. I suppose the word barn promotes a better nostalgic feeling than shed or shelter.

So much for frolicking and basking.

Free range eggs

large amount of brown eggs in basket at market

Photo: Julian Schwarzenbach

Free range eggs come from chickens who get access to yard time. The key phrase is get access to. That doesn’t mean the chickens actually use the outdoor area. It also doesn't necessarily mean they have unlimited access either. This is where Henrietta gets to do what chickens do if she chooses to do so. Searching for food, munching on greens, and enjoying the sunshine.[2] You know, the normal chicken life. She’ll get a bit of grain too.

These birds are housed in a safe space at night and during bad weather. This helps protect them from predators and health risks. [2]

Organic eggs

the word organic spelled out in tile squares

Photo: Fuzzy Rescue

There is so much confusion on what organic truly means. If you want an in depth understanding of organic, I recommend you start here: USDA, FDA, and the National Organic Program. The entire concept of organic is a different topic for another day.

On a high level overview, organic means the eggs were produced by chickens fed a diet of organic food. But what does that mean? This is where we could get baited into going down a rabbit hole of information. But I’m committed to keeping this high level.

Simply stated - the chickens eat food without chemicals, pesticides, or fertilizers. That also means when Henrietta is out frolicking through clover, the field needs to be chemical free for at least three years. [3]

I’ll add a little bit more here, and then I’ll stop. I can feel an urge coming on to follow the white rabbit down the hole.

Organic eggs mean the chickens live cage-free. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the poultry industry banned growth hormones, so they won't be getting any of those. [4] But, there are times when chickens get antibiotics.

Cruelty free eggs

white chickens in cages in dirty conditions and a dead chicken on the ground

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur

These eggs contain a Humane Certified label. On the surface, humane treatment should be a given. Isn't this common sense? I certainly don’t want Henrietta to suffer any cruelty in her chicken life. Why is cruelty free eggs even a thing? Do we actually need to label egg cartons like this?

Apparently so.

If you search for cruelty-free or humane certified eggs on the Internet, you’ll find plenty of resources. On the list of resources are farms who produce eggs under the label as cruelty free. Even some vegans who don’t eat animal products are lenient with these types of eggs. This is because the eggs come from old hens who have surpassed their commercial egg laying lifespan [5].

A few other considerations on humane treatment and conditions include:

  • Killing male chicks shortly after hatching

  • Overcrowding of chickens (caged or uncaged alike)

  • Injuries and illnesses

  • Lack of food, water, and sunlight

  • Inability to practice normal chicken behavior (dusting, playing, preening)

The white rabbit is back. I could easily go down a deep rabbit hole of inhumane and cruel living conditions in the chicken world. For now, I will let you do your own research - if you dare.

Conventional eggs

red chickens in cages

Photo: Danielle Suijkerbuijk

Conventional = cage. That pretty much sums it up. The chickens sit in cages where they live, eat, and lay eggs. That’s it in an eggshell.

Pasture raised eggs

multiple chickens of different colors in grassy yard with a chicken coop in the background

Photo: Dani Millington

Ahhh, here we go. This is more like it.

Pasture raised chickens live are more naturally. Their feed is primarily whatever they hunt for. Because of this, their eggs are higher in Omega-3. Their yolks are a dark orangish color. The color is similar to carrots and sweet potatoes. This stems from the nutrient called lutein. [4]

Don’t confuse free range and pasture raised. They are not the same. Pasture raised chickens have more square footage per chicken to roam. They have access to structures for safety and perching. But they aren’t kept confined to a building.

Pasture raised is what I like to think of when I dream of chicken life. I picture a group of birds released from the hen house each day. Running out into the fields. Scratching the ground. And eating a buffet of buggy delights.

Cue the harps.


You now have knowledge of some of the most common phrases used on egg cartons. When you’re at the store, browse the labels. Take photos of the cartons. When you get home, do your research.

One place to start researching is at the ASPCA website. You can review the different labels listed on their chart. Then compare to the labels on each of your egg carton photos.

It’s no wonder that so many people are seeking out local farms. Being able to ask a farmer how they care for their flock is essential. Being able to see first hand whether chickens live in cages is important.

You now have a better understanding of each egg type. This should help end confusion. When you’re ready to shop for eggs again, you’re prepared. Now you can be confident in your egg buying decision.


Cover Photo : Victoria Roca

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