Cage-free, Free-range, Grassfed, -finished, Organic, GMO, BPA, What & Why

We want to eat healthy. Period. And, we just want the simple steps to do so. Yet at every turn there is a new health and package term we are supposed to understand. Seriously, how difficult should it be to know which eggs to buy? From cage-free, free-range, pasture raised, vegetarian fed to grass-fed, grass-finished, organic, to GMO and PBA, what does it all mean? Here is the break down and a simple way to know what to look for.

Teacher writing food health terms on blackboard

Let’s start with eggs.

We will start with eggs, because who doesn’t eat eggs! Eggs are a go-to food for most of us. Self-proclaimed non-cooks to chefs all seem to be able to find a yummy use of an egg. And, rightly so. They are packed with nutrients and protein.

But, are all eggs created equal? By this point, we all have a pretty good idea that they are not. For most, that is where the understanding stops and the confusion begins. It can be daunting to stand in the egg isle at the grocery store just wanting eggs and wondering what the difference is between the brands and claims and prices.

Hopefully, after this quick breakdown, you’ll have a little clearer idea of what the claims mean and how to start looking for the best product for you.

It all starts with the traditional chicken plants that we’ve also heard of by now. With cramped and inhumane conditions and all sorts of ugly things happening because the chickens are in such deplorable conditions.

We begin with that knowledge and now turn to the other terms used so we can best choose our eggs. We see terms like free-range, cage-free, organic, pasture raised. What do they mean?

According to the USDA, free-range means that the hens must be allowed access outside. Access, however, is somewhat of an ambiguous term. You see, free-range does not necessarily mean that the hens have constant access to an outdoor space.Let’s take a closer look.

Traditional Eggs: chickens live in cramped chicken cages with no access to outside, sun, and little to no movement.

Vegetarian Fed: chickens are not vegetarians. They normally eat insects and worms plus feed. To see “vegetarian fed” on a carton typically means they are not allowed outside and only eat a feed diet.

Cage-free: about 1 sq ft of space per hen, but not in cages. Housed in big open warehouses. Can move around some, but not access to outdoor air, or free movement and diet.

Free-Range: about 2 sq ft of space. Access to outside of some sort. Able to move more freely. Terms are ambiguous so in some cases it is simply a wire screen that allows fresh air, but not free roaming or diet.

Pastured: outdoor space of at least 108 square feet per bird. Think cows. The hens can feed on grass, insects, worms, or anything else they come across in the dirt. These hens are let out from the barn at dawn then brought back in at dusk (in some cases, during the day, they are “kept” in pens or wire fences outdoors, still with the space allotted. These pens are rotated among fresh pasture and meant to keep them safe from predators).

Third Party Tested: While each of these terms are used vaguely to give an idea of how the hens are raised, the term used by a producer is not regulated by the FDA or USDA. So while it is a good general guideline, third party testing helps to ensure the claims are being followed as such.

Certified USDA Organic: For hens and eggs this means feed and pastured area that is free of toxic pesticides, herbicides or GMO plants and certified by the USDA as so. They must also live in a cage free environment and have access to the outdoors. Just because a hen is pasture raised does not mean they are receiving feed or land that is free of toxic chemicals or GMOs. Organic certification verifies the feed and claims.

Why does it matter:

There are two things at play here. The environment of the hen and the food it receives.

As for the environment, studies have shown pasture raised eggs to be healthier than traditional eggs. Think healthier birds, healthier eggs.

Pasture eggs were found to have 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 7 times more beta carotene, 3 times more vitamin E, and 4 to 6 times more vitamin D. (1)

Their environment can also be thought of in terms of what our own health looks like under certain conditions. We, ourselves, require movement, fresh air, sun, and good, clean food to thrive. To prevent disease and be our best selves.

The same is true of animals. The hens we rely on to produce eggs as food for us are living breathing animals as well. They will be healthiest under the right conditions and less so under other conditions.

Aside from the quality of housing and movement and access to air and sunlight, the quality of food comes in to consideration. As we’ve commonly heard, we are what we eat. Or, in this case, we are what what we eat eats.

A healthier hen produces a healthier egg. A healthier egg means a healthier consumption for us.

It can all be quite confusing and daunting. We just want eggs, after all. Hopefully this list serves as a foundation of education to start your search. It always helps me to do my research before I get to the grocery store. I research and decide before hand which brand or category makes the most sense for me at this time. Decide for yourself what the best you can purchase is at this time.


Again, you are what you eat. With the beef we consume, it is important to look for standards with how the animal was raised and fed. The treatment and natural living spaces as well as the feed.

Were they packed in a warehouse style caged area for quick raising or allowed to room as the animal would naturally? Did they receive the ability to move around and breath fresh air? Was their food free from toxic herbicides, pesticides, antibiotics and growth hormones?

Why does all of this matter? You are consuming what made them—their diet; surroundings; lifestyle. Their lifestyle is something you may not think much about when it comes to your food. Ultimately though, that lifestyle lent to the health of the animal. It determined whether it was disease ridden or nutrient filled.

A 2015 study by Consumer Reports showed “18% of the conventional beef samples were contaminated with superbugs — the hazardous bacteria that are resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics — compared with just 6% of grass-fed beef samples, and 9% of samples that were organic or raised without antibiotics.” (2)

So, what to look for? What do all the labels mean when it comes to meat?

Grass fed: Animals are raised on grass pastures and allowed to eat grass and forage for the bulk of their diet. This does not ensure, however, the diet was not supplemented with grain or switched to full grain to finish their diet. It also does not ensure the pastures were not treated with chemicals.

Grass finished: Animals are raised in grass pastures and allowed to eat grass and forage their entire lives. Often times, animals are moved indoors for winter and fed grains. Also, a bulk of “grass-fed” animals are “finished” by switching to a grain fed diet to “fatten” them up before slaughter. Grass finished implies they are allowed to roam and feed on grass and forage throughout their entire lives.

Organic: USDA organic means the animals were raised on organic land and never given antibiotics or hormones. The feed must be organically grown—free of toxic pesticides, herbicides, pesticides, or GMOs. They must also have outdoor access and for grazing animals, they must have unrestricted outdoor access. It does not guarantee the amount of access or the humanity of raising or care.

Third Party Label: Provides auditing and verification of standards and claims as the USDA does not determine or monitor the standards for grass-fed labeling. Two third party label certifications to look for are AWA (Animal Welfare Approved) and AGA (American Grass-fed Association).

AWA certifications ensure animals are fed organically, raised on pastures or ranges by independent farmers, and handled in a strictly humane fashion. This does not guarantee grass-fed unless it is also certified and labeled as such.

AGA certifications mean beef, bison, goat, lamb and sheep were raised, allowed to roam on pastures, never received antibiotics or hormones, received a 100 percent forage diet, and were born and raised on American family farms.

So, what does all of this mean? Hopefully it empowers you to understand the labeling and make choices that are best for you and your concerns—best for you and your body where you are at this time.

What is GMO & BPA and why does it matter?

GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Typically people are referring to genetically modified crops when referencing GMOs.

This basically means that something from a lab was used to modify the crop in some way. Often times, it is to make the item more resistant to the weed-killing chemical, glyphosate (aka Round-Up) so that a grower can spray their fields liberally, killing the weeds, but not the crop.

Sounds like a good idea, yes? Well, the caveat is that means that pesticide now shows up in your food. And even small traces of glyphosate (Round-Up) have been shown to be cancer causing. And, yes, studies have shown that more than half of food has pesticide residue. (3)

There are other concerns surrounding GMOs and there are, of course, varying arguments to both sides. If you want to be sure and prevent any such modifications or possibilities of pesticides, simply opt for non-GMO and/or certified Organic (organic, by definition, can not be genetically modified or sprayed with herbicides). An article I thought was quite informative and showed thoughts from both sides was this one from Well and Good.

BPA stands for bisphenol A. It is an industrial chemical that is used in the making of many plastics and in the lining of cans used for food storage and preservation. BPA has been shown to be a toxic compound to human health. It has been found to be an endocrine disrupter contributing to myriad diseases and health conditions such as cancer, asthma, ADHD, obesity, Diabetes among others. The easiest way to avoid this chemical is avoid containers with it. Switch to glass containers for storage needs and cans with a BPA-free notification.

Take Away

My strategy is to know ahead of time what I am looking for. That takes the overwhelm out at the time of purchase. Go ahead and decide what is right for you at this point in your life. What makes the most sense for your health and your wallet.

I personally try to buy organic as much as possible and then look to the secondary labels for the final factor (free-range or pasture raised with eggs, and grass-finished with beef, etc).

Note, the EWG (Environmental Working Group) publishes the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists each year for vegetables and fruits. The lists are intended to help consumers decide which foods they may want to purchase organic and which should be fine otherwise. They base this on the pesticides found in these foods (Dirty vs Clean).


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