If you spend any time on Instagram, you’ve probably noticed that chickens are trendy. Celebs like Reese Witherspoon, Oprah, and Gisele and Tom Brady keep their own fowl, and the IG tag #backyardchickens has over half a million posts.
A post shared by Oprah (@oprah) on Dec 13, 2012 at 9:28am PST
So what’s the deal? Are farm fresh (or yard fresh) eggs actually better for you?
The answer is probably—but it depends on how the chickens are fed and cared for. A 2007 study by Mother Earth News looked at the nutritional differences between conventional eggs and those produced by free-range chickens from 14 flocks around the country. (The free-range birds were allowed to either roam around or lived in moveable pens that maximized their access to fresh pasture while still protecting them from predators.) The eggs from the free-range hens contained less cholesterol and saturated fat, and more vitamins A and E, beta-carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids.
A 2010 Penn State study revealed similar results: Compared to eggs from commercial hens, those from pastured chickens had twice as much vitamin E, more than double the total omega-3 fatty acids, and a healthier balance of omega-6s and omega-3s (which has been shown to help reduce inflammation).
These differences help explain why pastured eggs typically have deep orange yolks and, according to many people, taste better. Other possible explanations include the birds' exposure to sunlight (which may boost the vitamin D content of their eggs), and a diet that includes nutritious seeds and plants, as well as worms, slugs, and insects.
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Interested in buying farm fresh from now on? Just keep in mind that "farm fresh" isn't a regulated term—so it doesn't necessarily guarantee egg quality or safety. If you buy eggs at a farmer's market, or accept eggs from a neighbor who keeps chickens, be sure to ask the right questions.
Find out exactly what the chickens are fed and what their living conditions are. Generally the more space they have in a diverse landscape, the better. Also inquire about how they’re cared for. For example, who monitors the health of the chickens, how often is the coop cleaned out, and how are Salmonella carriers (like rodents and flies) controlled? While the answers may vary depending on where you live, the point is to find out as much as you can from the people raising the chickens. I'd even recommend visiting the birds in person.
And if you're thinking thinking about adding chickens to your own homestead, check out some online resources first, like JenBTV’s fun Backyard Chickens series.
Buying from local farms or raising your own birds can be a great way to boost your nutrient intake (and help the planet). Just be sure to do your homework before you, er, get cracking.
Cynthia Sass is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees.