Image credit: avlxyz, used under Creative Commons license.
Backyard chickens are not an uncommon topic for we TreeHuggers, as are the abusive practices inherent even in the organic egg industry. As an avid hobbyist chicken keeper myself, I've always raved about the flavor of the fresh eggs we get—until I heard about research that suggests that all eggs, no matter what type of chickens they come from, taste pretty much the same. But then I started to wonder, does it really matter? Do All Eggs Taste the Same?
Some time ago I was listening to NPR's Splendid Table, when I heard a story about a fellow backyard chicken keeper who had decided to do a (literally) blind taste test with her eggs, store-bought conventional eggs, organic eggs, and just about any other kind of chicken egg she could get her hands on. The result—to my amazement—was that eaters reported pretty much universally similar results between all eggs.
This report has been playing on my mind for some time. I can't, of course, find a link to the original program now—but Google "all eggs taste same" and you'll find numerous articles—some more scientific than others—that suggest that flavor really is not that different between organic, local, backyard and even store-bought conventional eggs. The Food Lab over at Serious Eats did a relatively controlled experiment on the allegedly homogeneous flavors of even the most ethical egg.
Pastured Eggs are Better Looking
Having noted that pastured eggs were brighter, and more orange than eggs from caged hens, the experimenter J. Kenji Lopez-Alt served up scrambles of 6 different types of eggs. Initial results suggested that there were indeed flavor differences:
"Half of the tasters remarked that there was almost no difference at all in the flavor of the eggs. The remaining tasters noted that there were indeed differences: The pastured eggs and the eggs with 325mg of omega-3's per serving sat squarely at the top of their lists, described as having richer flavor, creamier texture, and just being overall "eggier". Next were the 200mg and 100mg omega-3 eggs, with the standard factory and regular organic eggs at the bottom."
Egg Appearance Impacts Flavor Perception
However, as soon as green die was added to eggs to make them indistinguishable by look, diners started reporting decidedly more mixed results—with most people not tasting any difference in the eggs. In fact, only one person picked the same favorite each time—something that would have most likely happened by pure statistical probability.
Experience is What Matters. Not Just Flavor.
While organic skeptics may relish such results, the fact is that very few people eat their eggs with a blindfold on. Appearance and smell have always been central to how we perceive our food, so the fact that organic, pastured eggs look better matters a whole lot. Similarly, we also eat with at least some knowledge of the story behind our food—eating is as much a cognitive act as it is digestive. So if we perceive the experience of eating an egg that came from a happy local hen from a well paid farmer as being preferable to eating the results of the industrial factory farming process, whose to say we are wrong? J. Kenji Lopez-Alt would seem to agree:
"Turns out that the mindset of the people tasting a product have just as much to do with its flavor as the product itself. So what incentive is left to pay the premium for "better eggs? Plenty. Better treatment of chickens. Making sure more of your money goes directly to the farmers. Peace of mind knowing that you aren't putting money into a system in which over half a billion eggs could be recalled.
I like to think of it this way: I'm going to continue eating the freshest eggs I can find produced by the most humanely raised chickens because I care a bit about the chickens' well-being. The fact that my mind tricks me into thinking these eggs are actually better tasting is just the icing on the cake.
Whether or not organic eggs really have better flavor or not, I know I enjoy my breakfast a whole lot more when I can see the ladies that produced it running around eating bugs in my yard. The solar hot water from my shower doesn't feel any better than if it was propane heated either, but I enjoy thinking about where it came from. The stories we tell ourselves as a culture matter. Let's make them good ones.