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Meatless Monday: What's the deal with 'vegetarian fed' labels on eggs and meat?

Standing in front of the egg cartons at the grocery store can be like reading an entirely different language. Free-range, vegetarian fed and organic are some of the options, but it can be a little overwhelming to know what they all mean when you’re just out to grab a dozen. 

The same goes for packaged meats labeled “grass-fed” or “vegetarian fed.” The trend is soaring, but some say it might not be healthy for chickens or those consuming chickens. 

By their nature, chickens are omnivores, Washington Post reports, meaning they eat bugs and other small animals when they can, but also eat grains like corn and soybeans. 

According to the Washington Post, tens of millions of chickens are raised each year on an organic (no pesticide), vegetarian diet with a synthetic amino acid not found in grains. 

Likewise, grass-fed beef eats from the pasture and, according to CNN, is said to be higher in good fats for the consumer and better for the cow and the planet. 

Before you decide what’s best for your family, brush up on the labels: 

Cage-free: Hens are not confined to individual cages, but Humane Society reports they aren’t necessarily frolicking in a grassy meadow, either. These hens typically roam uncaged in a barn.

Free-range: Hens are uncaged, typically in a barn, and have some access to the outdoors (though no regulations dictate how much or for how long). This allows the hens to partake in natural behaviors like foraging. 

Vegetarian fed: The hens’ feed does not contain any animal byproducts. According to the Humane Society, the significance of this label regarding living conditions is debatable, as it could simply mean hens are kept indoors and unable to forage for insects (part of their natural diet).

Certified organic: Hens are fed a vegetarian diet, as described above, with antibiotic- and pesticide-free grains, Yahoo Health reports. According to USDA standards, hens must have access to the outdoors year-round, as well.

Omega-3 enriched: The hens’ feed has more of the healthy fatty acid than would be found otherwise, according to Yahoo Health. These fatty acids make their way into the eggs and are good for heart health. 

Eggs from local farmers can be found at area farmers markets or through CSA programs in the area. 

As it stands, eggs are up for debate among vegetarians. Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs, but some argue eggs are meat. Learn more about the different types of vegetarians on Flavor 574 before deciding which eggs are right for a vegetarian diet. 

Follow digital producer Danielle Waldron on Twitter @DanielleWaldron

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