Orange does not mean organic.
Once upon a time, common nutrition folklore suggested brown chickens’ eggs were more nutritious than white. Word finally spread that the hue of an ovo makes absolutely no nutritional difference, and people finally stopped paying a premium for the slightly more stylish option.
Today, however, discerning egg eaters believe they can tell a “good,” pasture-raised, organic egg from a “bad” (read: conventional) one by the color of the yolk. That, it turns out, is also a lie.
“An organic egg and a non-organic egg are going to look exactly the same and taste exactly the same,” says Lisa Steele, a fifth generation chicken keeper and writer at Fresh Eggs Daily. “There’s no one in the world who can look at an egg, whether cracked or uncracked, and know if it’s organic or not.”
That’s despite the fact that people have come to rely on the color of the egg yolk to offer clues as to whether the egg they’re scrambling is organic or of a certain quality level. Common chicken wisdom suggests the more orange a yolk is the happier the hen was when she laid the egg. A happy egg yolk translates to one that is free to roam and plunder the earth for natural food. Steele says, however, the color could be a complete fake.
“An orange yolk is indicative of the chicken’s diet,” says Steele who lives outside Bangor, Maine with her husband, chickens, ducks, and farm. “So if the chicken is eating a lot of things that have xanthophylls in them, which is beta-carotene, it makes egg yolks orange.”
This pigment is in foods like marigold, alfalfa, pumpkin, and a lot of leafy greens, Steel says. “Chickens that are out in grass or a pasture are naturally getting it from the things they're eating,” she adds.
However, chickens can also get these foods without ever stepping a tiny chicken foot in a big open pasture. Feed manufacturers can add these ingredients—marigolds and alfalfa are most common—to their product, and the chickens will in turn produce eggs with sunset orange yolks, a characteristic most commonly associated with high-quality, pastured-raised eggs.
“These foods are nutritious. It’s not orange food coloring,” Steele says. “Feed companies do it because they know people want to see nice orange yolks. It’s sort of artificial, but none of this is bad for them.”
Of course, that also means you can’t tell if an egg is telling the full story based solely on appearance. The color isn’t an indication, which means the only way to truly know if the egg you’re eating came from a happy chicken that roams a pasture or a sad chicken packed in a cage is to see the chickens in their habitat.
“You can fake a pasture-raised egg or an egg from a happy chicken. They can put a chicken in a 12-inch cage and feed it marigold and alfalfa, and you’ll think it was a happy chicken,” Steele says. “The only real way to know is to see that chicken and see that they have a big place to roam and they look healthy and their feathers are glossy.”
Your local farmer’s market is an excellent place for finding an egg source you trust. However, when shopping the supermarket, your best bet is to understand what the labels on egg cartons actually mean—it’s not always the same as what they imply. This handy guide to egg carton terminology from Cooking Light is an excellent resource.
One Thing Your Egg Can Tell You Just by Looking at It
If it’s fresh: Steele says the yolks from fresh eggs stand tall and mighty, and the whites are thick and gelatinous. As eggs age, however, the yolks stretch out, and it more closely resembles a flat pancake when cracked into the pan. That doesn’t mean your egg is bad, of course. It just means it’s been sitting around for a while.