Eggs used to be eggs. Chickens laid them; farmers gathered them; grocers sold them; we ate them. Today, you’re bombarded by choices when you stock the larder. Organic or not? Cage-free or factory-farmed? “All-natural” or its opposite—whatever that is? Maybe the most impressive difference from one brand of egg to the next is the price tag. A dozen Great Value-brand chicken eggs costs 74 cents at a Midwest Walmart as I’m writing. If you want some organic, cage-free eggs from Eggland’s Best, though, you’ll have to cough up $4.98—which is nearly seven times the price. Reason tells us that the more expensive eggs must be better. Either they’re better for us, they taste better, or both. Otherwise, how do companies justify the markup? The most pressing question we want answered: While it’s probably going to taste delicious either way, will a recipe like this one actually be healthier if we cook it with pricier eggs as opposed to bargain ones?
Let’s deal with each of those questions in turn, starting with the issue of flavor.
Expensive vs. bargain eggs: Which tastes better?
We encourage you to repeat this study in your home, but you can’t beat the scientific rigor of food site Serious Eats’ Food Lab.
Food Lab writer J. Kenji López-Alt conducted a series of blind taste tests to see whether local, organic, grass-fed, brown-shelled chicken eggs were quantifiably tastier than their less expensive counterparts. First, López-Alt served unsuspecting diners tortilla-wrapped scrambled eggs. Half of them were from local, free-ranging chickens. Others were the cheapest option in the grocery store. The verdict? “The eggs were universally praised for their flavor,” López-Alt wrote. Not even the owner of the chickens could tell the difference between the two types of eggs.
A subsequent taste-test partially corroborated these findings, with four out of eight tasters claiming “there was almost no difference at all in the flavor of the eggs.” The other four were split between preferring eggs from free-roaming, pasture-raised chickens, and organic, cage-free eggs with higher omega-3 counts. Of course, these tasters could see their eggs, and fresher eggs have brighter yolks. It’s certainly possible that appearance affected the tasters’ findings.
So López-Alt repeated the experiment after treating all the eggs with green food dye. “This time, most people could not taste any difference in the eggs,” López-Alt wrote. Other accounts echo this finding. But even if more expensive eggs don’t taste better, they must be better for you, right?
Organic, free-range, local, or factory farmed: Which eggs are healthiest?
We’re willing to pay extra for healthier food. It just makes sense. But there’s really no reason to assume that expensive eggs are “better” for us than the cheapest factory-farmed eggs we can find. (Some, like free-range eggs, are probably better for the chickens. You’ve seen the PETA video, or if not, click the link with caution… But that’s another discussion entirely.)
It turns out that the authoritative United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) had the same question. In 2010, they sent food technologist Deana Jones on a quest for the answer. Sort of. Jones and her team actually only tested different varieties of eggs for “quality.” In this case, that meant the relation between the height of the egg white when cracked on a flat surface and the overall weight of the egg. This is called a Haugh unit. It’s named after Raymond Haugh, who asserted that fresher, more desirable eggs have thicker albumens, also known as whites.
Taking all that (and only that) into consideration, the USDA asserted that “there’s no substantial quality difference between eggs produced under different production systems.” Many media outlets, including Time magazine, then reported these findings as proof that there’s no difference in healthiness from one egg to the next. There’s just one problem with that—we’re not aware of any research associating “quality” as measured in Haugh units, with “healthiness,” which continues to mean different things to different people.
So which eggs do we buy?
Consumer Reports tells us that eggs laid by chickens given vegetarian diets “tended to have more of certain vitamins and omega-3s than those from hens fed a conventional diet.” Some hens are given extra flaxseed or fish oils to boost the omega-3 levels of their eggs. But, in short, “healthy” is too amorphous a term for the USDA or anyone else to make definitive claims about. If it makes you feel better to buy more expensive eggs, go ahead and buy them. They’re not going to hurt you (well, maybe in the pocketbook), but they might not be any better for your health than the cheapies.