Egg Nutrition - Laying the Foundation for Good Health

By: Alison Anton, Certified Nutrition Educator

Unlike the human egg, which relies solely on the nutrition filtering into the womb from its mother, a chicken egg holds within it everything it needs to develop into a budding spring chick. It does this all on its own, inside the walls of a thin, porous shell. Ode to this wondrous marvel of nature, eggs provide us with a concentrated source of nourishment: essential fats, quality protein, vitamins, minerals and other key nutrients our bodies need for optimal functioning.

Egg Nutrition Highlights
Eggs provide high quality, low cost protein. Two eggs supply around 12 grams of protein, a good starting point for each meal (Bauman, 225, 2009). The protein is contained in the white, or albumen, of the egg. Farm-fresh organic eggs cost on average $4 per dozen, supplying you with six servings of protein. Compare that with a single-serving steak that could easily cost double, triple or quadruple that amount.

Eggs help manage stress and boost immunity. Eggs are naturally loaded with B-vitamins, which play a critical role in proper energy metabolism, immune function and nerve function (Murray, 1996, 129). With the stress of modern living, most adults could use some nervous system protection and to raise the bar of defense against viruses and bacteria. Vegetarians might consider adding eggs to their diet since vitamin-B12 is only found in significant quantities in animal foods.

Eggs have anti-oxidant properties. With their high amounts of selenium and vitamin E, egg consumption may protect against the negative effects of free-radical damage (UPMC, 2009). Free radicals are a normal by-product of metabolism, but when out of check, can cause damage to cells. A diet high in vitamin-E can have a protective effect for many common health conditions.

The Cholesterol Myth
Did you know that the human liver actually makes its own cholesterol? According to fat expert Dr. Mary Enig in her book Know Your Fats, it is impossible to eat enough cholesterol-containing foods everyday to supply the body with its specific cholesterol needs. When there is cholesterol in the diet (as with eating eggs or other meats) the liver will slow down its production of cholesterol; and when there is a shortage of dietary cholesterol, the liver will produce more to meet its demands. Cholesterol is so important that your own liver can produce 2000 milligrams of it a day just to make sure you have enough (Schenker, 2009).

It's a fact that eggs contain a lot of cholesterol. The myth is that cholesterol from the food you eat goes straight into your bloodstream, and then right into your arteries. According to Harvard Medical, only a small amount of cholesterol passes into the blood from the foods we eat (Harvard Health Pub, 2009). The amount that passes through is what is needed so the liver doesn't have to produce it on its own.

Best Farm Fresh
If you are able to access a local farm that sells chicken eggs, this is ultimately the best source, and will provide the freshest, healthiest, most delicious eggs. Once you've eaten a local farm-fresh egg, you'll realize that the commercial varieties literally pale in comparison.
A good farm-fresh egg yolk will have a deep orange hue versus a yellow tint, indicating the welcomed presence of the anti-oxidant beta-carotene. The yolk will also stand high when the egg is cracked, towering triumphantly over its commercial counterparts. A deep orange yolk and a high stance both indicate a very fresh, highly nutritious egg.

Small, local farms will generally allow the chickens to be truly free-range (more about free-range and cage-free chickens later) meaning that they are scavenging for grub in the fields, as well as supplied with a supplemental vegetarian diet. The nutritional content of the food is not only vital to the health of the chicken, but also to the health of the people eating the eggs. You'll want to ask the farm if the feed is organic, as an "organic" egg means that the chickens themselves are eating organic feed. Preferably though, the chickens are dining mostly on worms, larvae and bugs (see Omega-3 Eggs below).

Commercial chicken feed is usually a base of corn and soy, which for the most part, are genetically modified organisms (GMO). Corn and soy are staple mono-crops, many of which have been genetically engineered to withstand harsh and unnatural chemical fertilizers and insecticides. If you opt for eating non-GMO's, but are unaware that if an egg is not labeled "organic" at the supermarket, the chicken who laid the egg may very well have been fed genetically modified feed. Again, the nutrient content of the egg will ultimately be determined by the food that the chicken has been given.

Cage-Free Hens -- Why is it Important?
It's important for ethical reasons. Most commercial egg-laying hens are battery farmed, meaning that they are confined to cages that hold 3-5 birds each so the factory can maximize stocking density. The birds are exposed to unnatural lighting 24-hours a day to trick them into laying more eggs. Chickens are aggressive by nature and have a specific pecking order. They need their elbowroom, so to speak, and naturally desire special nesting areas to lay their eggs. Keeping the chickens in cages is also unsanitary, as diseases spread easily from bird to bird in such small apartments.

Cage-free chickens are allowed to roam around the chicken coop and follow their natural pecking order. They have access to designated nesting areas for laying, and they are generally healthier, cleaner and live happier lives.

Free-range or free-roaming chickens have access to the outdoors, although the outdoor area is likely a chicken run, rather than free access to the farm. They can come and go as they please. They generally don't have access to forage in the fields, but this keeps them safe from predators. Most small, local farms will offer free-range or free-roaming chickens, or at the VERY least cage-free.

Color: Despite popular belief, brown eggs are not healthier. The color of the egg is breed-specific, meaning that it just depends upon the chicken laying the egg. Generally, brown hens will lay brown eggs, and white hens will lay white eggs. More specifically, the color of the hen's earlobes will determine the color of the egg (Nest Fresh, 2009). Go figure.

Omega-3 Eggs: Eggs used to be naturally high in the anti-inflammatory fats called omega-3's. Chickens were roaming the farms eating worms, bugs and larvae naturally high in these good fats, which in turn passed down to their eggs. Most chickens these days are rarely given access to fields where they can forage. To compensate, farmers add flaxseed and green algae to the feed. Eggs from these birds have a better balanced ratio of omega-3 fats to omega-6 fats (Rubin, 2003, 254). Omegas 6's tend to be over-consumed compared to omega 3's. Look for "High Omega-3" on the carton at natural food stores.

Floating Eggs: When placed in water, an egg should lay horizontal. The larger side of the egg contains an air pocket that gradually fills with air as time goes by. The older the egg, the more air will fill the pocket. If the large end of the egg pops up like a Weeble-Wobble in water, it is still safe to eat, but indicates a lack of freshness. If the egg floats altogether, discard the egg, as it has gone bad (AEB, 2009).

Keep it Soft: Eggs contain a variety of delicate and vital nutrients. In order to keep them intact, cooking methods for eggs should be slow and gentle. Poaching and soft boiling are the favored methods, as they allow the yolk to remain soft and protect the protein from damage.

Although the risk of getting a food-borne illness from eggs is low, safety is an issue with soft cooking, as bacteria like salmonella can only be killed off at a temperature above 140 degrees. Make sure your eggs are fresh; in rare cases, salmonella can make its way through the porous shell over time. The majority of salmonella poisoning from eggs comes from the outer shell; commercial eggs are irradiated and sanitized in detergent to eliminate salmonella (AEB, 2009). Store-bought organic eggs, as well as farm-fresh eggs will not be irradiated, but will go through a cleaning process. None-the-less, eggs should be treated like vegetables when you get them home: wash them before you eat them.

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2. Murray, Michael. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York, New York. Atria Books. 2005.
3. UPMC Nutrition Services; Selenium. 2009.
4. Enig, Mary, PhD. Know Your Fats. Maryland. Bethesda Press, 2000.
5. Schenker, Guy R, MD. An Analytical System of Clinical Nutrition. Nutri-Spec Fundamental Lifetime Plan for Optimal Health. 2009.
6. Egg Nutrition and Heart Disease. Harvard Health Publications, 2009.
7. Real Cost of Caged Eggs. YouTube; Animals Australia. 2007.
8. All About Chickens: The Difference Between Caged and Free-Range Hens. YouTube; Expert Village, 2008.
9. Nest Fresh Organic Eggs; FAQ. 2009.
10. Rubin, Jordan S. Restoring Your Digestive Health. New York, New York. Twin Streams Books. 2003.
11. American Egg Board; Egg Safety. 2009.