WTF Are Vegetarian Eggs?

Adventures in decoding the egg labels at the grocery store.

When it comes to buying eggs, there are a lot of options—even if none of them come cheap these days. Yet while I'm accustomed to making all the typical choices between white and brown, cage-free and pasture-raised, and large and extra-large, I recently came across a type of egg I'd never noticed at the grocery store before: vegetarian. What, I wondered, is a vegetarian egg, and how on earth is there yet another consideration to make when buying eggs?

Vegetarian eggs, explained

The first thing I concluded was that, because they looked exactly like regular shelled eggs, they weren't some sort of plant-based alternative like the pourable JUST Egg or shrink-wrapped WunderEggs. Not to mention the fact that eggs by their very nature fall into many forms of vegetarian diet, since they aren't the flesh of an animal killed for food. (The term for this diet is lacto-ovo vegetarianism.) What, then, is unique about these specially labeled eggs?

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While the first label I spied simply said "VEGETARIAN EGGS," the other brands I found online later all say "VEGETARIAN-FED," which provides a much clearer picture of what this product actually is.

"Vegetarian eggs are produced by hens that are fed rations containing only vegetable foods," a representative for the American Egg Board confirmed to The Takeout.

You might already know that chickens, like many birds, are natural omnivores, subsisting on a combination of commercial chicken feed and small bugs foraged from pasture. The insects provide the chickens with protein, and as the Washington Post explained in this 2015 feature on vegetarian-fed hens, protein supplies an amino acid called methionine, an antioxidant that keeps hens healthy.

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"They're really like little raptors – they want meat," chicken farmer Blake Alexandre told the Post.

An all-vegetarian diet is one that restricts hens' access to the worms and other critters they would otherwise eat in the pasture. There are pros and cons to this approach, and it has spurred quite the gnarly debate.

Why eat vegetarian-fed eggs?

Some of the nation's leading egg producers note that a vegetarian diet—one primarily consisting of grains, seeds, and soybeans—can help lower the birds' cholesterol. According to Perdue Farms, eliminating animal byproducts from chicken feed (including fish meal and rendered animal fat) also means the chickens don't have to be pumped full of antibiotics to counteract potential disease.

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On the other hand, the Washington Post reported in its 2015 feature that when hens lack access to the protein provided by bugs, they must be supplied with synthetic methionine to keep them healthy—and that synthetic additive can take a bit of the "100% organic" shine off of the vegetarian-fed eggs consumers are paying a premium for.

On a more practical level, there just might not be much of a difference between regular and vegetarian-fed eggs. While the farms might claim these eggs are a wholly superior product, the American Egg Board does not.

"Unless stated otherwise on the egg carton, there are no nutrient differences between vegetarian eggs and conventional eggs," said a representative. Some brands do call out their eggs' "enhanced nutrient profiles," and these eggs come from hens fed "nutrient-enhanced vegetarian rations."

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Asked about how vegetarian eggs taste in comparison to regular ones, the Egg Board indicated that its group was "not aware" of any difference in flavor between the two.

Personally, I prefer to buy eggs from pasture-raised hens, even though they cost a fair deal more. In my experience, these eggs have a richer, stronger, more flavorful yolk that breaks less easily while cooking. While I don't know for sure what my hens eat (I've never thought to look!), the company indicates hens are given time outdoors, increasing the likelihood that they sneak some bugs into their daily diet. 

Consumer education and watchdog group The Cornucopia Institute has a handy Egg Scorecard that shoppers can consult when researching the brands available at their grocery store, weighing factors such as flock size, outdoor access, and the space afforded to each bird. Even if it doesn't influence your shopping decisions, it's an interesting way to think a little more about where our food comes from, and how conditions across the industry can be improved for both animals and humans alike.

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