The Truth About Eggs: How to Tell the Good From the Bad
Are they healthy? Are they safe? And are they all created equal?
The eggs in your supermarket may be hiding a dirty little secret …
Here we’ll dispel some of the myths about eggs and help you to decipher what your egg labels really mean … including how to choose the highest quality eggs available.
Are Eggs Healthy?
Eggs have been demonized for years because they contain a lot of cholesterol (about 212 milligrams in an average large egg). But eating eggs is not likely to send your cholesterol levels soaring, or cause you to develop heart disease, as many fear.
Cholesterol is actually an essential part of your body, used to produce cell membranes, steroid hormones, vitamin D and the bile acids your body needs to digest fat. Your brain needs cholesterol to function properly, as does your immune system, and if a cell becomes damaged, it needs cholesterol in order to be repaired.
So cholesterol is not only beneficial, it is a vital part of your body.
Further, eating cholesterol is not what gives you high cholesterol. According to the Harvard Heart Letter, it’s a myth that all the cholesterol in eggs goes into your bloodstream and your arteries.
“For most people, only a small amount of the cholesterol in food passes into the blood. Saturated and trans fats have much bigger effects on blood cholesterol levels,” the Heart Letter states. “The only large study to look at the impact of egg consumption on heart disease—not on cholesterol levels or other intermediaries—found no connection between the two.”
Eggs are also an excellent source of healthy nutrients, including choline, a B vitamin that may help reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, dementia and more. Egg yolks also provide the most readily absorbed form of lutein, a yellow-hued carotenoid that may help fight everything from cancer and cataracts to macular degeneration and aging
As Jen Allbritton wrties for the Weston A. Price Foundation:
“Besides providing all eight essential protein-building amino acids, a large whole, fresh egg offers about six to seven grams of protein and five grams of fat …, which comes in handy to help in the absorption of all the egg’s fat-soluble vitamins.
One egg also serves up around 200 milligrams of brain-loving cholesterol and contains the valuable vitamins A, K, E, D, B-complex and minerals iron, phosphorus, potassium and calcium. Choline, another egg-nutrient, is a fatty substance found in every living cell and is a major component of our brain. Additionally, choline helps break up cholesterol deposits by preventing fat and cholesterol from sticking to the arteries. So the bottom line is, don’t be chicken about eating eggs, especially the cholesterol-rich yolks!”
All Eggs are NOT Created Equal
When it comes to choosing healthy eggs, there can be major discrepancies between different brands – including production methods, feed for the chickens, and more, all of which impact the final product.
For instance, in the 2010 egg recall, salmonella bacteria was found in both barns and chicken feed at two large egg-producing facilities in Iowa. It may surprise you to know that the majority of eggs produced in the United States – 95 percent or more – come from giant factory farms housing 75,000 laying hens or more.
According to the American Egg Board (AEB):
- About 205 egg companies have flocks of 75,000 hens or more, which account for 95 percent of all U.S. egg production
- 62 egg-producing companies have 1 million hens or more
- 12 companies have 5 million hens or more
These are major industrial operations that often result in poor conditions for the chickens and inferior-quality eggs as a result. As AEB states:
“In today’s egglaying facilities, temperature, humidity and light are all controlled and the air is kept circulated. The building is well insulated, windowless (to aid light control) and is force-ventilated. Birds are either given the run of the floor area or are housed in cages …
Most poultry rations are of the all-mash type. They are made of sorghum grains, corn, cottonseed meal or soybean oil meal depending upon the part of the country in which the ration is produced and which ingredient is most available.”
In other words, in most cases chickens are kept entirely indoors in crowded conditions and fed feed that is far from a hen’s natural diet. Commercial egg-laying hens are often fed genetically modified soy and pesticide-laden grains, whereas a chicken’s natural diet includes seeds, plants, insects and worms naturally foraged from pasture.
This difference in feed can and does impact the quality of the eggs you eat. The 2007 Mother Earth News egg testing project found that, compared to eggs from commercial farms, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain:
- One-third less cholesterol
- One-quarter less saturated fat
- Two-thirds more vitamin A
- Two times more omega-3 fatty acids
- Three times more vitamin E
- Seven times more beta carotene
Unless you choose your eggs very carefully (such as from a local farmer or select group of small- or medium-scale organic family farms), they will probably come from a hen that has never seen the light of day.
Being raised in caged conditions may also impact the safety of your eggs. A separate study found that over 23 percent of hens from caged farms tested positive for salmonella compared with just over 4 percent in organic flocks and 6.5 percent in free-range flocks.
The study also found that salmonella was much more common among large flocks, with those holding 30,000 birds or more having over four times the average level of salmonella as smaller flocks.
“The smaller the farm is, the lower the likeliness of Salmonella,” infectious disease specialist William Schaffner, chair of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, told LiveScience. “The general thinking is that larger chicken farms are much more difficult to keep clean, and this makes it easier to transmit Salmonella.”
Even Organic Eggs May be Questionable
Many consumers have been switching to organic eggs, believing they are a safer, more human alternative. However, a new report from The Cornucopia Institute, “Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture,” revealed that many organic farming operations are actually very similar to the large-scale industrial factory farms mentioned above.
“After visiting over 15% of the certified egg farms in the United States, and surveying all name-brand and private-label industry marketers, it’s obvious that a high percentage of the eggs on the market should be labeled ‘produced with organic feed’ rather than bearing the USDA-certified organic logo,” Mark A. Kastel, The Cornucopia Institute’s codirector and senior farm policy analyst, said.
In fact, 80 percent of U.S. organic eggs are produced by a handful of companies, most of which own hundreds of thousands, or millions, of birds. It’s common for many organic producers to house 85,000 hens or more, most of which have no adequate access to the outdoors, as federal organic regulations require.
However, many of the family-scale farms were, in fact, adhering to organic standards and allow hens access to pasture.
As The Cornucopia Institute reported:
“The best producers with permanent housing profiled in Scrambled Eggs have plenty of pasture available surrounding their chicken houses, multiple popholes (doors) of adequate size and maintain the birds by rotating them into separate paddocks, allowing a rest period for the pasture to recover.
Laying hens on pasture-based farms tend to be under less stress—based on their greater opportunity to exercise and ability to engage in instinctive foraging behaviors that cuts down on aggression toward their flock mates— and frequently live closer to three years instead of the one year that is common on industrial-scale farms.”
You can view the results of The Cornucopia Institute’s report, including finding rankings for 70 different name-brand eggs and private-label products, here.
This guide can help you to make better, more informed decisions when it comes to purchasing your eggs, and as you’ll see in the report most of the top-rated companies are those that manage diverse, small- to medium-scale family farms that sell eggs locally or regionally under their farm’s brand name, mostly through farmer’s markets, food cooperatives and/or independently owned natural and grocery stores.
This is likely true across the United States, and no matter where you live you may be able to secure the safest, most nutritious and most humanely produced eggs by purchasing from a small local farmer, either directly or through a farmer’s market or food coop near you.