Free the Chicks
Welcome back to Spiffy Eats! Today we will be continuing our series on clean eating, "Free the Chicks: Choose free-range chicken, pasture-raised eggs, and organic when possible." We will be hearing from one of the most brilliant women I know and one of my dearest friends, Amber Vargas.
Amber Vargas is a full-time wife and mother of two beautiful children from Greenville, South Carolina. She is passionate about clean eating and sustainable living.
When I asked Amber why she got into clean eating she said it was because of her children. "I wanted my children to be as healthy as possible. I started wondering how I could help keep them healthy. I didn't feel right about a lot of things that were offered to kids, especially things offered at daycare that I knew were not healthy. I started feeling uncomfortable giving them over-the-counter medications that doctors prescribed and I started looking for a more natural approach. I became really interested in healing your body with food."
Amber is a teacher during the school year who holds a Master of Education (M.Ed.) and a BS in Early Childhood Education and Elementary Education. Her research skills amaze me and that is one of many reasons I am so proud to have her guest blog for us today.
Without further adou, here are Amber's thoughts on "Free the Chicks".
Eggs have had their share of criticism in the recent past for contributing to heart disease and strokes, however, research is now telling us that eating eggs does not cause heart disease and strokes (2). Eggs are one of the healthiest foods! Looking at the eggs nutrition profile we can see why:
- Excellent source of protein
- Various vitamins and minerals (including vitamin D)
- Good source of choline for brain health
- Healthy fat
- Antioxidants that help our vision
- All nine essential amino acids
When it comes to buying eggs and chicken, there are many different labels and it can be very confusing. So what are the best eggs we can buy? How can we get the most nutrition for our money? Why are some eggs more expensive and which ones are worth the extra cost? Some of the choices you may see in the supermarket are cage-free, free-range or free-roaming and pasture-raised. Here I hope to help clarify what these labels mean so you can make the best choice for your family.
Unfortunately the organic label does not mean a whole lot when it comes to eggs. Organic egg labeling basically means that the producer has to adhere to organic guidelines from the USDA, including no antibiotic/hormone treatment and organic feed must be given. However, the hens can still be kept in crowded factory farms with no outdoor access and receive inhumane treatment such as beak clipping and forced molting via starvation. Unfortunately the factory farms have been taking over smaller farms for quite some time and now 80% of organic eggs come from factory farms (3). Hens living in these crowded conditions are stressed and just as stress effects our health, it effects the health of the chickens as well.
Usually when I see an “organic” label, I think to myself, “hmm…that’s a good start, let’s see what else you got…” The following are some other factors and labels worth understanding when it comes to choosing your eggs or poultry.
The conventional egg industry is not for the faint at heart, it can be a dirty business. Cage free is about the bare minimum of humane treatment. Basically cage free means what it says, the hens are not kept in cages. They can however be kept in a small barn or other holding area without access to the outdoors. Keep reading and we will see why outdoor access is vital.
Free-Range or Free-Roaming:
When you think of free-range hens, what comes to mind? Sweet little chickens scampering across the rolling meadow perhaps?
Just look at those happy chickens… Chickens that roam about pecking for food (including various plants, worms, and insects) have been shown to be higher in many nutrients (3). According to the US department of agriculture, free-range hens must have access to the outdoors. Sounds good right? Let those little guys run free! But what if right outside that open barn door is a concrete slab or a barren dirt wasteland? This is often the case with commercial, free-range eggs (3). Will the hens even bother to venture out? Are there any bugs or grass to munch on? If not, they will probably stay inside. Missing out on nutrients they need and the added sun exposure which gives them higher levels of vitamin D, which provides us, the consumer, with very much needed vitamin D.
Some free-range eggs claim to have an “enriched environment” for their hens. This is a big plus. If you shop at whole foods, you may have see this on some of their labels in the meat section. Remember the concrete slab that some free-range chickens have access to? Well, an enriched environment means that chickens were provided with an enticing environment in which to peck around for food. An environment rich in plants, grass, and bugs! Chickens who have access to an enriched environment are more likely to take advantage of the great outdoors (1) and produce healthier chickens and eggs for us to eat.
So, while free-range eggs are better than those produced by factory raised chickens in crowded, indoor living conditions, is there an even healthier option than free-range? Yes! Cue pasture-raised eggs.
Pasture Raised Eggs:
While there are no set USDA standards for pasture raised eggs, pasture raised hens typically roam free in a natural environment or pasture. Even the USDA says that pasture raised animals have better health and it is the optimal environment for the animals. A recent study conducted by Mother Earth News (Free Range Eggs) compared hen eggs from 14 different pasture raised farms to the USDA nutrient data for conventional eggs and found the following results:
• 1/3 less cholesterol
• 1/4 less saturated fat
• 2/3 more vitamin A
• 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
• 3 times more vitamin E
• 7 times more beta carotene
Eggs are also a great source of vitamin D3, however, it makes sense that hens raised indoors without sunlight would not have as much vitamin D as those with more sun exposure. In fact, eggs from hens that have access to the outdoors can have three to four times the amount of vitamin D (1). Just remember, if you want to get a dose of vitamin D3 from your eggs, eat the yokes!
So now that we see the health benefits of pasture raised eggs, where can we get them? Finding pasture raised eggs in a conventional supermarket can be challenging, although many stores such as Whole Foods and Earthfare usually stock local, pasture raised eggs. One of the best places to find pasture raised eggs is at your local farmers market (Pepper Place in Birmingham, or Downtown Greenville Farmer's Market in Greenville). I love getting eggs from my local farmer because I can ask them in person how the chickens live, what they eat, and what kind of chicken the eggs come from. I love supporting the small farms in my area. Farmer’s market eggs are also much cheaper than pasture-raised eggs in the store.
Here is a picture of the beautiful eggs I get from my local farmers market.
Find real nutrition food sources in your area!
Don’t be too hard on yourself
We have to be reasonable about what we have access to and what is sometimes out of our reach. If you cannot afford or do not have access to pasture raised eggs, do not dismay. Buy what you have access to in the following order:
Pasture raised, organic free-range, free-range, cage free
- Kühn, J., Schutkowski, A., Kluge, H., Hirche, F., & Stangl, G. I. (2014). Free-range farming: A natural alternative to produce vitamin D-enriched eggs. Nutrition, 30(4), 481-484. doi:10.1016/j.nut.2013.10.002
- BMJ (2013). Egg consumption and risk of coronary heart disease and stroke: Dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. 346:f149 CCBYNC
- Mother Earth News http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/eggs-zl0z0703zswa.aspx#axzz38oXfi0rA