Monday, April 20, 2009

A Good Egg

In the past few years, as my family's shopping and eating habits have changed to favor healthier, more sustainable options, one of the grocery items that has most troubled me is eggs. There are so many options and possibilities, and which one is best is a true puzzle! There are cage-free eggs, free range eggs, pastured eggs, vegetarian-fed eggs, organic eggs, antibiotic- and hormone-free eggs, industrial-scale eggs, and local small farm eggs. And I haven't even gotten into the different varieties of hens that lay the eggs!

I started out buying anti-biotic- and hormone-free eggs that were fed a vegetarian diet. They were only slightly more expensive than conventional eggs, and I thought they covered my egg-related concerns. Then I thought, well, if the hens are being fed a diet of conventional grain, which is genetically modified and full of pesticides, is this the best egg for my family? So, I started buying industrial-scale organic eggs, feeling better that the hens were fed "safe" food.

Now, over time, I'd become aware of the environmental impact of long-distance food, and I began to take an interest in local eggs, but since local, organic eggs weren't easy to come by, and when they were, they were prohibitively expensive ($6/dozen), I couldn't justify buying them and stuck to my industrial organic eggs at about $4.50/dozen.

Then I read Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (an excellent read!), and the idea of vegetarian fed hens went out the window. Kingsolver explains in her book that if a hen is allowed to eat its natural diet, it will eat all sort of bugs and larvae and such in the course of pecking at the ground. That contributes to a better-tasting and more nutritious egg, and a healthier, happier hen.

Finally, I read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (an even more excellent read!), and that made it abundantly clear that vegetarian-fed hens don't make the best eggs, and that cage-free hens and even free-range industrial hens are really in no way free to roam. Pastured eggs, that is eggs from hens allowed to roam freely on pasture, are probably the best bet. The hens get a natural diet that includes some grass, some bugs, some miscellaneous animal matter, and grain feed.

So, now I could buy those local, organic, pastured eggs for $6/dozen and feel justified in doing so, but nonetheless, the wallet always wins. So, what to do? Some compromise needed to be made, but what was unimportant enough to sacrifice? A very tough question, since now I had principles and convictions and knowledge that made anything short of perfection seem just plain disgusting!

So, here is the verdict: I decided to buy local, unclassified (non-organic) pastured eggs from a reliable source (ie. someone who could be trusted to really allow the hens large quantities of pasture-time, and who would not be interested in using hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, etc.). In many communities such eggs could be found in a farmer's market, or even at a local farm, if you're willing to get to know your local farmer. My eggs were found in my semi-local health food store (about a 20 minute drive). It happens that this store is vigilant in sourcing from reliable local farms, making sure the farmers' philosophies jive with those of their customers. Many of the farms that offer this sort of product are producing something just as good as organic, but they can't afford all of the fees, red tape, and regulations that come with organic certification. So, they practice many of the same methods (or sometimes better!), but nonethless can't call themselves organic.

My new $3.79/dozen eggs are better in many ways, but in one very important way: they contain many more times the omega 3 fatty acids of conventional eggs, and that's due in large part to the hens eating grass. One other major plus is the quality of the eggs. The eggs I buy show me not only the expiration date, but also the date they were layed, so I know just how fresh they are. I used these eggs in the cake that I make every Passover, which requires 10 eggs (yikes!). Since flour cannot be used on Passover, often whipped egg whites are used to give a cake height, as in this cake. Wow! The cake has never stood so tall or tasted so light. It was a different cake, and the only variable that changed were the eggs. Incredible!

Now, there are no guarantees that I'm getting what I think I'm getting. These eggs are certified by absolutely no one, and though they claim to be pastured, I can't know exactly what they mean by that, and I have no idea what other practices the farm may have that I might find objectionable. That's why this is somewhat of a compromise. Still, these are the best eggs I've ever tasted, and I feel reassured that they are pastured simply by the dark orange color of their yolks (that's beta carotene). There's very little doubt in my mind that I've solved my egg problem.

No comments: