Cage-Free vs. Free Range—and Other Egg Carton Labels—Explained

With eggs at super-high prices, you want to make sure you’re getting what you think you’re paying for

By Trisha Calvo, January 31, 2023

Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

High prices have hit nearly every aisle in the supermarket, but arguably no price hike has caused as much chatter as the cost of a dozen eggs. Prices jumped 60 percent on average in 2022, according to the Consumer Price Index.

Still, there are probably several brands of eggs in your supermarket at a range of prices, labeled with a variety of claims. If it’s important to you that the chickens were raised outdoors, for example, and the cage-free eggs are cheaper than the free range eggs, should you go for the ones that cost less? Knowing the real meaning behind these and other claims on egg labels can help you make the right choices for you.

Cage-Free: This term means that the hens are not kept in cages, but it doesn’t mean they’re clucking around in the fresh air and sunshine. They can be kept indoors, often in crowded conditions.

Farm Fresh: All eggs come from “farms,” even if the farm is a big building where chickens are packed into cages, so this labeling claim has no value. The term “fresh” generally means the product hasn’t been frozen, but eggs in the shell should never be frozen.

Free Range: The birds aren’t kept in cages and they have outdoor access, but they can still be raised in crowded conditions and the outdoor area can be tiny. But the combination of free range and either the Certified Humane or American Humane Certified labels on the carton means the birds can access a spacious outdoor run.

Natural: People often mistake “natural” for “organic,” but the two terms are very different. By definition, an egg is a natural food product, so slapping “natural” on it has no clearly defined additional meaning.

No Hormones: By law, chickens that produce eggs and those that are sold for meat can’t be given hormones, so eggs with this claim on the package label are no different from eggs sold without it.

Organic: This seal means eggs were laid by hens fed grains grown without synthetic pesticides or GMOs. The birds cannot be raised in cages or given antibiotics. They must have outdoor access, though in some cases this can still mean confined conditions in a building with just a small concrete porch.

Pasture-Raised: There’s no standard definition of this term, so on its own the meaning may not be clear. But with the Certified Humane or the American Humane Certified labels, which have similar standards for pasture-raised hens, the chickens must have access to a pasture with space to perform natural behaviors, such as pecking for seeds and bugs.

From Consumer Reports