Why Eat Pasture-Raised Eggs for Mental Health?
Eggs are a good food for boosting your mental health, but not all eggs are created equal. The way that hens are treated and their living conditions impact the nutrients in their eggs.
This post helps you decipher what all those egg labels mean. What's the difference between cage-free, free-range, and pasture-raised eggs? What does cage-free mean? (Hint: It's not as good as you might think.) What are the benefits of organic eggs?
What's in This Post
|What Types of Eggs Help Mental Health?
|What are the Mental Health Benefits of Eggs?
|How are Most Hens Treated?
|What do Egg Carton Labels Mean?
|Which Eggs Should You Buy?
|Book About Foods for Anxiety and Stress
What Types of Eggs Help Mental Health?
Eating eggs can help you make sure that you get sufficient complete protein throughout your day and get other nutrients to deal with stress, but eggs vary in their costs (not just financial) and benefits depending on the conditions of their creation.
How poultry are raised impacts the birds and their eggs.
It can be confusing to understand the many different designators for how chickens are raised. I thought I understood it all, but was shocked to find out a couple of years ago (in a class about nutrition and mood) that the cage-free eggs I was buying were not from chickens romping outdoors. Turns out, cage-free is different from free-range which is different from pasture-raised.
What are the Mental Health Benefits of Eggs?
Pasture-raised eggs make my list of 12 Best Foods for Anxiety.
I go into way more detail about the nutrients your body needs to deal with stress in my book Feed Your Calm: Anti-Anxiety Anti-Stress Diet and Supplement Tips for Stress Resilience, but here I'll quickly mention some mental health nutrients eggs have to offer.
Eggs are a good source of:
Pasture-raised eggs—but not eggs from indoor factory farms—are one of the few food sources of (1):
Pasture-raised eggs are better than typical eggs from factory farms in many ways, including (2):
- more vitamin A,
- more DHA and EPA omega-3s, and
- a better omega 6:3 ratio.
How are Most Hens Treated?
The typical way that hens are handled in the US has them housed in “battery cages” inside large buildings and fed GMO foods and “animal byproducts.”
The close quarters they are packed into leads to common practices such as vaccination and prophylactic administration of antibiotics to counteract the spread of diseases. They also have their beaks trimmed as chicks to minimize the harm inflicted between birds that become aggressive because they are stressed out.
"The vast majority of egg-laying hens in the United States are confined in battery cages. On average, each caged laying hen is afforded only 67 square inches of cage space—less space than a single sheet of letter-sized paper on which to live her entire life. Unable even to spread their wings, caged laying hens are among the most intensively confined animals in agribusiness."
What do Egg Carton Labels Mean?
Producers of eggs that are not created under these typical mass production conditions can proclaim one of several designations to set their eggs apart.
Here are the different ways eggs are described in the US and the conditions to warrant the designation:
1. No added hormones really doesn’t give eggs any stand-apart quality because US poultry are not allowed to be given hormones.
2. Omega-3 Enriched eggs are from hens given ALA-rich flaxseeds and/or fish oil in their diet. Producers of these eggs tout increased omega-3 but don’t usually tell you what the eggs’ breakdown is for ALA versus our target omega-3s, EPA and DHA.
3. Raised without antibiotics only means exactly that. It doesn’t directly speak to any other living or feed conditions. It may be a good sign that the birds are treated more humanely because the overcrowding in typical factory farms leads to antibiotics being given to chicks in order to stave off infectious outbreaks in flocks.
4. Cage-free means not housed in battery cages. This is a designation that has a great deal of significance for eggs in the US because typical factory farms confine hens to overcrowded battery cages. The cages don’t allow room for natural chicken behaviors like spreading their wings and preening. Battery cages have been banned in some countries and in some American states but are currently the norm for US-produced eggs. However, cage-free hens are still kept in overcrowded indoor high-density conditions.
5. Free-range means they are cage-free and have access to the outdoors. This would seem to be a glorious jump up in living conditions, but outdoor access might be very limited and not conducive to them using the opportunity to get outside. The outdoor access could be a small obscure opening. The outdoor area could be anything from cement to pasture and there are no size requirements.
6. Free-range + Certified Humane Raised & Handled means higher standards for outdoor access and conditions are met.
7. Organic eggs are from hens given non-GMO organic food that hasn’t been exposed to pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, not fed animal by-products, not given antibiotics or vaccinations, and having access to the outdoors as in the free-range designation. (The USDA had new rules for organic poultry—ensuring more indoor and outdoor space and access to pasture or soil—which were to be phased in by 2023. However, a change in administration changed all that and rolled back the organic standards. Unlike the US, Canadian organic standards include minimum space and living requirements beyond non-organic standards.)
8. Pasture-raised means that the hens spend most of their time in a pasture where they get natural sunlight (leading to increased vitamin D in these hens’ eggs) and primarily eat grasses, plants, seeds, insects, and worms. They can be supplemented with non-organic feed. In theory they could be given antibiotics and vaccines but the need for them is reduced because of their improved living conditions.
9. Pasture-raised + Organic tells you that any supplemental feed that the pasture-raised birds are given is organic and they conform to all other organic regulations.
As you move to higher numbers on the list above, you also move up in price. Pasture-raised organic eggs may be difficult to find and are expensive relative to other eggs (though even this quality of egg may be less costly than other sources of protein, eating in restaurants, and luxury foods like a Starbucks coffee).
I can’t in good conscience recommend eggs from caged hens, but there are many other options. You may take a look at what’s available around you and consider researching different brands online to see if you can find out whether they meet standards in a minimal way or are above the minimum. For example, free-range might mean that the birds don’t really get outside because the opening to the exterior is small and generally unnoticed, or it might mean that they spend quite a bit of time outside because they have lots of access to a high-quality yard. It might mean something in-between.
Which Eggs Should You Buy?
The typical egg from a factory farm has lots of baggage that comes with it. The next steps up in humane treatment are cage-free, free-range, Certified Humane Raised & Handled, and pasture-raised.
Buying eggs that are organic will get you away from the potential chemical contaminants from the hens’ feed and the downsides of the use of antibiotics and cages, but the time the hens spend outdoors varies. Time in pasture can up the nutritional value of the eggs including improving the omega-3s and vitamin content.
Which egg you choose to buy depends on your location, values, goals, and budget, but hopefully now you are armed with more information for making your choice.
. Julia Kühn et al., “Free-Range Farming: A Natural Alternative to Produce Vitamin D-Enriched Eggs,” Nutrition 30, no. 4 (2014): 481–484, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nut.2013.10.002.
. H. D. Karsten et al., “Vitamins A, E and Fatty Acid Composition of the Eggs of Caged Hens and Pastured Hens,” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 25, no. 01 (2010): 45–54, https://doi.org/10.1017/s1742170509990214.
Book About Foods for Anxiety and Stress
It took me four years to research and write my book Feed Your Calm: Anti-Anxiety Anti-Stress Diet and Supplement Tips for Stress Resilience because I wanted everything in it to be research-based. My medical background from having been a medical lab technologist before I studied to become a counselor was very helpful for sorting high-quality research from less impressive projects.
Check out the book to see how you can benefit from my research.
- Ann Silvers