Eggs have faced the brunt of controversy around heart health in recent decades, despite being a nutritious food consumed for thousands of years by many cultures. According to the American Egg Board, fowl were probably domesticated as early as 3,200 B.C. in the jungles of the Indian subcontinent. Ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures all enjoyed eggs in their diets. Although records indicate wild fowl were likely a food source for Native Americans, it was Columbus who brought domesticated laying hens to the new world from Europe.
Whether you’ve poached, fried, scrambled, whisked, or baked an egg, chances are you’ve thought about its impact on your cholesterol. The totality of research has demonstrated that dietary cholesterol (cholesterol from foods) does not significantly raise blood cholesterol levels in your body. Initial studies showing any kind of link between dietary cholesterol and heart health is tenuous at best, and many experts now concur that blood cholesterol levels have more to do with overall eating patterns and different types of fats, rather than cholesterol.
This is good news for egg yolks, which are are a concentrated source of cholesterol yet boast a healthy nutrient profile. Most of us know eggs as a source of protein (one egg contains 6 grams of protein), but eggs are unique because they contain all essential amino acids needed for the body in their most bioavailable form. This means their protein digestibility is right up there with meat, poultry, and seafood. Eggs are also excellent sources of the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which are important for retinal health and preventing macular degeneration. Choline, another important nutrient found in eggs that is not found in many foods, is essential for metabolism, fetal brain development, cognitive function, and memory. Eggs are also rich sources of 13 essential vitamins and minerals including B vitamins, iron, potassium, and vitamins A, D, and K. Eggs are a nutrition powerhouse that can be safely consumed as part of a healthy diet.
Visiting the egg aisle at the grocery store can be overwhelming – but what are you really paying for? Typically, nutrient content does not vary greatly amongst eggs. Here’s a breakdown of the some definitions:
- Conventional eggs – Hens are confined to a barn in cages with no access to the outdoors and little exposure to daylight. Movement is extremely limited and hens are fed conventional grain.
- Organic eggs – Hens are fed organic grain and not given hormones or antibiotics. Although organic typically implies more humane and sustainable farming methods, it’s not necessarily synonymous chickens roaming freely through idyllic green pastures, as these hens may still be confined.
- Cage-free – A more humane method that means hens are allowed to move around within an open barn, but typically still do not have access to the outdoors. Conditions may still be crowded, but USDA graded “cage-free” eggs must come from hens that were allowed freedom to roam while laying.
- Pasture-raised/Free range – There is currently no standard legal definition of this in the U.S. but according to the USDA, this voluntary label means hens must have “outdoor access.” This could be very limited access through a door for a few hours per day, or hens may have access to a combination of the outdoors and indoors and able to forage for insects. The only way to know for sure is to check with the farm or the supplier. For a more specific definition, check for the Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) Certified Humane label. HFAC’s “free range” label requires 2 square feet per bird, and the hens must be outdoors (weather permitting) for at least 6 hours per day. HFAC’s Certified Humane“pasture-raised” requirement is “108 square feet per bird and the fields must be rotated. Hens must be outdoors year-round, with mobile or fixed housing where the hens can go inside at night.” Pastured-raised eggs may be negligibly higher in omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin A.
- White vs. brown eggs – Despite the popular misconception that brown eggs are more natural, the only difference is the breed of chicken. White-feathered hens lay white eggs, while brown hens with red lobes lay brown eggs. There’s no significant difference in nutrient profile.
Food Safety: Eggs should be washed and refrigerated within 36 hours of lay to prevent salmonella. They should be stored at or below 46 degrees Fahrenheit. Cook to a minimum internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
Tired of the conventional scrambled egg breakfast or egg salad sandwich? Try these ideas:
- Add a touch of gold to your deviled eggs – Make deviled eggs and sprinkle with turmeric, which offers many anti-inflammatory health benefits.
- Throw hard boiled eggs on a classic green salad or try with a Thai-style salad with cabbage, colorful crunchy veggies like carrots and red peppers, peanuts, and sesame/ginger dressing. Eggs may help increase the absorption of vitamin E in your vegetables!
- Top a bowl of cooked steel-cut oats with a poached egg and toss in your favorite sautéed veggies for a savory twist on classic oatmeal.
- Make a gourmet open-faced egg sandwich: cook an egg to your liking and spread a piece of whole grain toast with coconut oil, avocado, egg, and sprinkle with chia seeds for added crunch; or, layer toast with pesto, egg, and goat cheese.
By Natalie Colla, CDE, RDN, LDN. Natalie is a Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator, and food and health blogger. Follow her foodie adventures at www.plantasticeating.com