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How to shop for eggs: Decoding secret carton language

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What's the real deal with egg carton labels? (iStock)

Shopping for eggs? Better bring a glossary. Egg makers are slapping all manner of industry terms on their cartons, some of them meaningful, some of them not.

But where would you find a glossary of egg carton terms? Right here:

White / Brown

The color of the shell is simply that: a color. Different breeds of hens lay different colored eggs, most commonly white or brown but also blue, green, or speckled. Shell color isn't an indicator of health or flavor or quality—but brown eggs are a lot better for Instagram.

Grade A / Grade AA / Grade B

Eggs are graded according to USDA guidelines. Grade AA and Grade A are practically interchangeable—they indicate eggs that have thick whites, yolks that are free from defects, and clean shells. Grade B is noticeably different: the whites are thin and the shells are blemished. You'll find Grade A eggs at the grocery store; Grade B is typically reserved for industrial use.

PeeWee / Small / Medium / Large / Extra Large / Jumbo

USDA size standards range from peewee (yes, that's an actual term) to jumbo. Most recipes call for large eggs, which is good, because that's what most grocery stores carry. (Peewees, which are the size of quail eggs, are almost impossible to find). Large eggs weigh about 2 ounces and contain approximately 3 1/4 tablespoons of liquid; extra large eggs weigh about 2.25 ounces and have about 4 tablespoons of liquid. Thus, if a recipe only calls for one or two eggs, you can use the two interchangeably with no serious consequences. (Got a recipe that calls for more than two eggs? Start measuring.)

All Natural

This term isn't regulated by an agency, so anyone can slap it on their carton and it can mean pretty much whatever the producer wants—there are no standards when it comes to feed, living conditions, or use of antibiotics. In other words, this means nothing. Ignore this.

Vegetarian-Fed

This means that the chickens were fed a strictly vegetarian diet, which is made up of mostly corn and soybeans. However, this label also suggests that the chickens weren't allowed to spend any time outside, where they would feed on non-vegetarian grub like worms and other little bugs

Free Range / Cage-Free

Free-range means the chickens are not caged and have some access to the outdoors—though there's no way of knowing if the chickens actually go outside and if they do, for how long. Cage-free simply means the hens are not caged, but they remain indoors. However, there's no regulation regarding how much space cage-free chickens actually get.

See more about eggs.

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