What do you think of when you see "cage-free" or "free range" on egg carton labels? Hens happily clucking through a pastoral field? Unfortunately, the reality of these chickens' lives isn't what the carton label would suggest. Despite these terms, these chickens are still confined to cramped spaces. Here's what you should know about cage free vs free range eggs to make smarter choices at the grocery store.

Cage-Free Eggs

chicken, egg
Kitty Wang Yip

According to the USDA, cage-free eggs come from hens that are "housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle." Even though this sounds a lot better than confining a chicken to a cage, note that this regulation makes no mention of a space requirement. This means that lots of chickens can be stuffed into a barn and still be considered cage-free.

Free Range Eggs

egg, herb
Kitty Wang Yip

The USDA defines free range eggs as basically the same as cage-free eggs, with the exception that free range hens have access to the outdoors. Note that this doesn't mean they're able to roam completely free and might just have access to the outdoors at certain times of the day.

Which Should You Buy?

egg yolk, chicken, egg
Hana Brannigan

Think back to that idyllic image of chickens happily roaming through a grassy field. That's what you'll get if you support pasture-raised chickens. Pasture-raised chickens are happier, healthier, and pop out some damn good eggs. They contain less cholesterol and saturated fats and have more omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin E, Vitamin A, and beta-carotene. The yolks of these eggs tend to be more orange than their cage-free counterparts, indicating the hen's healthy diet.

If you purchase pasture-raised eggs from the farmer's market, not only are you supporting local farmers, but you're also lowering your carbon footprint by choosing locally-sourced products. When thinking about purchasing cage free vs free range eggs, keep in mind pasture-raised eggs and their many benefits.