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What Makes Egg Yolks Orange?

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What makes chicken egg yolks orange is a carotenoid called xanthophyll that's found in many common foods.

There is nothing more beautiful on a breakfast plate than a vibrant orange egg yolk, shimmering like a miniature sun. But does a bright orange yolk mean that the egg is more nutritious or tastier?

Not necessarily.

Does an Orange Egg Yolk Mean the Egg is Fresh?

A bright orange yolk doesn't mean the egg is fresh, it doesn't mean that the hen who laid it was treated or fed well, and it doesn't even mean that the egg came from a free-range hen.

A common misconception is that the more orange the yolk, the more nutritious the egg or that it had to come from a free-ranging hen.

Does an Orange Egg Yolk Mean the Egg is More Nutritious?

The eggs from the free range chickens are likely more nutritious due to their natural, varied diet, but a commercially raised chicken can be fed feed that has ingredients such as corn and marigolds in it that will boost the yolk color as well.

While it is true that chickens who free-range normally do lay eggs with deeper, darker yolks because they have a more varied diet that includes grasses, herbs and weeds that contribute to yolk color as well as provide an array of vitamins and nutrients to the hen, there are other ways to ensure egg yolks are bright orange that don't involve any free ranging.

What Makes Egg Yolks Orange?

Even if you don't free range your chickens, there are ways for you to boost the color of your backyard flocks' egg yolks while increasing the quality of their diet, while not exposing them to the inherent risks of free-ranging.

So let's take a look at what causes the color.

Carotenoids, including carotene, lycopene and xanthophyll, are natural pigments that are found in various foods. It's the xanthophyll that creates a nice, bright orange egg yolk.

So chickens with a diet high in such foods will lay eggs with more vibrant yolks.

Foods that contain xanthophyll include:

red cabbage
sea kelp
Swiss chard
turnip green
...and the leaves of most green plants.

Signs of a Good Egg Layer

These various pigments contribute not only to egg yolk color, but also to the color of hens' feet and beaks, and more noticeably the feet and bills of ducks.

And any excess pigment not used to produce eggs is stored in feet, bills and beaks.

So one sign of a good layer is a pale bill with very little bright orange and the greenish color of the bill showing through (normally covered up with the bright orange color).

The males of the species (roosters and drakes) who don't lay eggs will also tend to have very orange feet and bill/beaks as long as their diet includes adequate levels of the xanthophyll pigment.

The Carotenoids

Other carotenoids such as beta-carotene and canthaxanthin don't contribute directly to yolk color, but they do contribute to healthier eggs since both are converted to Vitamin A and help prevent the oxidation of vitamins in the eggs.

The DSM Egg Yolk Color Fan

The DSM Yolk Color Fan is a widely accepted scale to judge yolk color. Surprisingly enough, yolk color preference varies depending on who you ask.

While people in the UK tend to prefer eggs with yolks in the 8-10 range, New Zealanders like their yolks to be  in the 11-13 range and Germans like theirs closer to 14! No word on what color yolks Americans prefer though.

Interesting factoid: the more yellow the "white" of an egg (the albumen) is, the more riboflavin (Vitamin B2) that egg contains.

So, the bottom line is that adding healthy sources of carotenoids, especially xyanthophyll to your chickens' diet will not only provide them a more well-rounded, nutritious diet but also result in gorgeous vibrant egg yolks.

And if you're wondering about all the other parts of the egg? This article on egg anatomy is a good one.


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