Chicken and eggs carry a variety of claims in the grocery store, from free-range to organic to no-antibiotics to natural. These labels can be confusing when you’re looking for a healthier product. Free-range poultry can offer health and other benefits, but you’ll need to look beyond the label to determine whether the poultry comes from a source you trust.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines free-range as allowing chickens to have some access to an outside area . The definition of free-range does not include specifications on how long chickens should remain outside and under what conditions. Chickens can be outside on concrete for a short period of time each day, for example, and still be labeled as free-range in the grocery store. The labels free-range and cage-free can cause confusion. Cage-free means chickens raised for meat were not kept in cages within a warehouse. Cage-free does not mean that chickens have access to outside areas. To ensure you’re purchasing meat and eggs from free-range chickens that foraged on grubs and plants as in a natural environment, look for indications on the packaging that the chickens were pastured, or find poultry with the “Animal Welfare Approved” label, which is handed out by a nonprofit watchdog group. Alternatively, buy from a local farmer who can guarantee the chickens ranged on pasture for a majority of each day.
Reports have been mixed on health benefits of free-range chicken. But some smaller studies indicate that pastured chickens may be healthier. A 2003 study by Penn State University researchers found that eggs from pastured hens have higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids and vitamins A and E (Penn State University; “Pasture-ized Poultry”; Joanna Lott; May 2003). For the greatest health benefits, purchase poultry and eggs from a trusted source so you know the chickens ranged freely on pesticide-free grass.
Chickens confined to shared cages inside warehouses don’t engage in their natural behaviors, such as foraging, taking dust baths and flapping their wings. If you are concerned about the amount of antibiotics fed to chickens, purchase poultry and eggs labeled with both free-range and no-antibiotic-added labels.
On the Farm or In the Backyard
Free-range chickens on your farm or in your backyard can benefit your landscape. Farmers use mobile chicken pens to move chickens around on their agricultural lands. Chickens forage for insects and eat leftover crops such as lettuce and other greens while at the same time fertilizing the soil . This creates a symbiotic relationship between the animals and the land. A few chickens in your backyard can help reduce pests in your garden and provide you with a source of fertilizer.
The old adage “you are what you eat” certainly holds true when considering the nutritional value of eggs. Since the 1970s, studies have indicated that eggs from hens with access to pasture are better for you than eggs from birds kept in cages. Free-range hens that eat a healthy, natural diet pass on that benefit to you in the form of more nutritious eggs.
Free-range chickens must have access to the outdoors, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, whereas growers raise conventional poultry confined indoors in cages. Pasture-raised hens eat a diet of grass and bugs in addition to their grain diet. Conventionally raised birds, on the other hand, are fed a strictly grain diet. Consumers should note, however, that regulations do not require that free-range hens have access to pasture, and studies comparing the hens’ diet to the nutritional value of their eggs compare pasture-fed free-range hens to conventional birds. For the health benefits of free-range eggs, make sure you purchase them from pasture-fed flocks.
Less Fat and Cholesterol
The American Heart Association recommends reducing intake of both saturated fat and cholesterol in order to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. Testing by “Mother Earth News” found that eggs from pasture-fed free-range hens, on average, contained one-third of the cholesterol and one-fourth of the saturated fat as conventional eggs. A Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education study yielded similar results, with pastured hens producing eggs with 10 percent less fat and 34 percent less cholesterol.
More Vitamin A
Vitamin A promotes the healthy development of teeth, bones, soft tissue and tissues in the eyes needed for good vision; it also acts as an antioxidant and protects cells from damage. The “Mother Earth News” and SARE studies found that free-range eggs contained 67 percent and 40 percent more vitamin A, respectively, than conventional eggs.
More Vitamin E
Vitamin E also protects cells by acting as an antioxidant, in addition to promoting healthy blood and circulatory system function. Free-range eggs contain more vitamin E than their conventional counterparts. The “Mother Earth News” survey found triple the vitamin E in the eggs they tested, and Pennsylvania State University research found double the vitamin E in the eggs of grass-fed hens (“Mother Earth News”; Meet Real Free-Range Eggs; Cheryl Long et al.; October/November 2007).
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a form of polyunsaturated fat known as “essential” fatty acids because the body cannot manufacture them on its own; you must consume them from food. Omega-3s are connected to heart health, lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, and other potential health benefits such as decreased risk of diabetes, stroke, digestive disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, some cancers and dementia. All three studies found higher amounts of omega-3s in free-range eggs versus conventional eggs. “Mother Earth News” reported the most modest differences, with the free-range eggs they tested containing only twice the omega-3s as conventional eggs, while the Penn State study found 2 1/2 times more. Free-range hens in the SARE study, however, produced eggs with four times the omega-3s as their caged sisters.