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So many cartons, so little time: A guide to grocery store eggs

A guide to grocery store eggs. Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post.

You know the saying. You have to crack a few eggs to make . . . some eggs.

But which eggs to crack?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, Americans consumed a little over 19 pounds of eggs per person in 2015, the most recent year with available statistics. That's the equivalent of 144 eggs, and sometimes it feels as if there are nearly that many options when you're staring at the display case in the grocery store.

We want to simplify the process for you. Here's what you need to consider:

Size

Fun fact: "Peewee" is an actual weight class of egg designated by the USDA. The largest size is jumbo, but for most of us, the staple is the large egg. In many instances, you can use another size in lieu of large if you have to.

Color

Sure, brown eggs look so much more rustic and wholesome, but that's about it: looks. (Same with those colorful ready-made Easter eggs you can get from some farmers.) The color of the egg depends on the breed of hen. There's no nutritional difference, although brown eggs may be bigger, and therefore cost more, because the hens tend to be larger and eat more.

Pasteurized

One of the biggest risks from raw, undercooked or mishandled eggs is salmonella poisoning. Pasteurization kills the bacteria responsible for the nasty intestinal illness, and in many grocery stores you can find at least one brand of eggs that are labeled as pasteurized. They typically cost more than non-pasteurized eggs.

If you're using a recipe that calls for raw or partially cooked eggs - especially if you're serving young children, the elderly, pregnant women or immune-compromised individuals - consider going pasteurized. Just keep in mind that the heat used in pasteurizing might cause egg whites to become cloudy and take longer (up to four times as long, according to the American Egg Board) to foam if you are beating them.

How the eggs are raised

This is where you have to decide whether and how much more you are willing to spend based on conditions for the egg-laying hens. The terms "cage-free," "free-range" and "organic" are regulated by the government, and often these eggs cost more than eggs from conventionally raised hens. Cage-free laying hens have unlimited access to food and water and are free to roam in their space, though that doesn't require outdoor access. Free-range hens are required to have the same conditions as cage-free but must also have continuous access to the outdoors. Organic eggs must come from uncaged chickens fed an organic diet and given outdoor access (though a Washington Post investigation found some iffy interpretation of that rule).

Choosing between these types of eggs is more of a moral, and financial, rather than culinary decision. A USDA study found no difference in quality among the various types of grocery store eggs, although some other analyses have shown higher levels of certain nutrients, such as vitamins and omega-3 fats, in eggs from hens allowed access to pastures.

As to taste? Post food policy columnist Tamar Haspel pitted eggs from her own free-range chickens against those from factory chickens. No one could tell the difference.

 

Story by Becky Krystal. Krystal is a food writer and the lead writer for Voraciously. After several years as a general assignment reporter in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, she came to The Washington Post in 2007 to work for TV Week and Sunday Source. Her time at The Washington Post also includes a five-year stint in the Travel section.

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