First it was cholesterol, now it’s salmonella. The poor egg just can’t catch a break.
Since I like to root for the underdog, I’m dedicating this Food Spotlight to my dear maligned friend, the egg.
When they’re not tainted with salmonella, eggs are an incredibly healthy food. With six grams of protein and a list of other nutrients including, riboflavin, vitamin B12, selenium, phosphorus, choline, lutein, folate, vitamin D, and zeaxanthin, that little guy packs quite a lot into a two-inch oval. And it’ll only cost you about 80 calories. Nutritionists call it a “nutrient-dense” food, meaning they are rich in nutrients compared to their calorie content. More simply, you get a lot of nutrient bang for your calorie buck.
I know, I know, there is that thing about cholesterol. Noone’s perfect and my friend is no exception. Eggs have a lot of cholesterol, 212 milligrams per large egg to be precise. But the good news is, it’s completely contained within the yolk. If you don’t want cholesterol, just eat the egg whites. How many other foods make it easy for you to separate out the bad stuff? You ever try taking the sugar out of a Twinkie? Or the saturated fat out of a French fry? At least my friend made it easy for you. He’s like that you know, very considerate of people’s dietary restrictions.
And lucky for us, recent research has debunked the myth that eating eggs increases your risk for heart disease. A 2007 study published in Medical Science Monitor observed no significant difference in cardiovascular diseases (like stroke and heart attack) between people who consumed more than six eggs per week and those who consumed one or fewer eggs per week.
Now, nutrition guidelines suggest that healthy adults can eat one whole egg a day. (Diabetics, individuals with heart disease, and people with high cholesterol still need to check with their physician regarding egg consumption.)
This week, ready to fill my shopping cart with eggs, I stopped to study my choices. I had never paid attention to the labels before. Nestled among the standard brown or white eggs were “cage free,” “free-range,” “certified organic,” and “Omega-3 enhanced” eggs.
Good God, I thought. Isn’t an egg just an egg?
I’m skeptical of any marketing claim on a food label, especially when the cost rises with each bold statement. My mind quickly jumps to, “Does it really matter if the hens are cage free, or are they just trying to gig me for more money because it sounds better?”
After some research I deciphered the meaning of all those marketing labels. Here’s a rundown of what those terms mean.
“Cage free” means exactly that, the chickens aren’t in cages, but they’re not roaming around the farm pecking at the ground either. They are often in barns or warehouses and generally don’t have access to the outdoors. More disconcerting is that there’s no third-party audit of the farm. So you have to trust that the supplier is being truthful in his “cage free” claim. Um, yeah, I don’t know about that.
The same goes with “free range” eggs. These chickens have some degree of outdoor access but the amount, duration or quality of access isn’t regulated. And again, there’s no third party audit. Yeah, I have a “free range” dog too. Does that mean I could charge more for her if I wanted to sell her?
If you really want eggs from a hen that is living the most natural life it can, your best option is a “Certified Organic” egg. These hens are cage free and are required to have outdoor access. However, the amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access is undefined. They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program and compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
“Omega-3 enhanced” eggs are from hens fed a significant amount of flaxseed. This claim has nothing to do with how the chicken lives, it could be a caged hen or free range. It is simply stating that the chicken’s feed is high in omega-3 fatty acids.
With all this confusion about labeling I wondered, does it even matter? Does the way a hen is cared for impact the nutritional quality of the egg?
Well, maybe. It certainly makes sense that a hen allowed to forage naturally would have a more diverse diet, leading to different nutrition in her eggs.
A study conducted by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences showed that eggs from chickens allowed to forage in pastures were higher in some nutrients. There’s also a study fromMother Earth News touting the nutritional benefits of free-range eggs versus caged hen eggs, but with a name like “Mother Earth News,” it makes me question their results. Although they claim the eggs were tested by an accredited third-party lab.
All else being equal, I’d buy certified organic eggs, for the sake of the chicken and also because I agree with the logic that a naturally fed chicken will produce a higher quality egg. But it’s not equal. Organic eggs are $2.89 a dozen at Kroger versus $1.89 for standard, caged hen eggs. Ugh, what to do? My family of five goes through about three dozen eggs a week.
I think this is the perfect product to start buying local. This Wednesday I’m going to check out the West End Farmer’s Market. Maybe I’ll see you there.