What’s that egg? Carton labels explained.

A hen stands next to an egg at a farm in Glenview.

Erin Hooley/AP

Shopping for eggs? Chances are you’ve spotted egg cartons plastered with different labels advertising that they’re cage free or pasture-raised to free range.

There’s also eggs that come in different colors from various shades of brown and brick red to even blue or speckled eggs, if you’re lucky.

It can be confusing for a shopper to navigate and sometimes the labels can be misleading, according to experts.

We’ve broken down the meaning of different labels and whether an egg’s color really makes a difference.

Natural and farm fresh

Some labels don’t mean anything, according to Maria Kalaitzandonakes, assistant professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s agricultural and consumer economics department.

She said eggs labeled “natural” don’t have any requirements associated with it, and cartons touting no hormones “is not a useful label as hormones are not given to egg laying hens.”

The American Egg Board, a Chicago-based industry group, said farm fresh is another description that means very little as all eggs are farm fresh with “eggs typically reaching the store shelf within 72 hours of being laid.”

Cage free

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said chickens who produce eggs, known as laying hens, are cage free if the hens “are able to roam vertically and horizontally in indoor houses, and have access to fresh food and water.”

A number of companies like Burger King, General Mills, Unilever and Target have committed to sourcing cage free eggs. In February, McDonald’s announced it met a goal of sourcing 100% cage free eggs for its U.S. locations.

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But about 60% of laying hens are raised in battery cages, according to the USDA.

Josh Balk, CEO of The Accountability Board, an animal welfare activist investor group, has been working to whittle down the number of caged hens for years. Balk said cages are usually “the size of a home microwave [with] six to eight birds inside the cage.”

“A chicken is confined to a point where she’s unable to spread her wings,” he said. “She’s forced to eat, sleep, defecate and lay eggs in the same small spot every single day.”

Some states have either banned, or made a push to ban, the sale or production of eggs from caged hens such as California, Massachusetts, Rhodes Island, Oregon, Washington and Michigan.

Illinois State Sen. Linda Holmes, D-Aurora, proposed a bill in February, SB3655, that if passed would ban the sale of caged egg production by Jan. 1, 2026.

American Egg Board CEO Emily Metz said the increase in cage free eggs shows the industry is willing to respond to consumer demands, but that it represents an enormous capital investment for farmers.

“They have to quite literally replace their barns,” Metz said. “It requires more labor. It requires different feed. So it is a massive, massive undertaking, but an undertaking that the industry has done willingly that our farmers have committed to because if that’s what the consumer wants, our farmers will produce it.”

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Pasture raised and free range

Pasture-raised eggs are from hens that have been outside for a significant portion of its life, according to the USDA. For it to meet the Certified Humane or American Humane Certified labels, hens should be raised uncaged with access to outdoor space, about 108 square feet per hen, to freely move around.

Free-range eggs, packed in USDA grademarked consumer packages, are produced by hens that “are able to roam vertically and horizontally in indoor houses, and have access to fresh food and water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle.” Hens must be outside for more than 51% of its life, according to the USDA, but the amount of space can vary by farm.

Shell and yolk colors

Shell color doesn’t determine the nutritional value of an egg, according to the USDA, but instead indicates the type of hen it comes from. White shell eggs are from hens with white feathers while brown eggs are typically from larger hens with brown feathers. These eggs often cost more because the hens consume more feed. The same applies for blue and even green eggs — the color comes from specific breeds.

An egg’s yolk may vary in color from light yellow to a burnished orange. That’s because of fa hen’s diet. Yolks that are whiter are indicative of a chicken fed mostly on wheat. A deeper, more burnished orange color means a carotenoid-rich diet. Carotenoids are found in a variety of produce that hens may consume such as greens, carrots and some flowers, which could reflect a more outdoor lifestyle.

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