Eggs are a nutritional powerhouse, but over the last forty-five years, they have slowly become an item of concern for nutritionists. In 1977, The McGovern Committee’s report titled Dietary Goals for the United States declared that Americans all should cut down on fats—especially those derived from animal products, due to the higher amount of saturated fats. The reaction at the time ranged from positive to negative with the American Medical Association in disagreement and stating that individualized diet plans based on one’s needs and body were better for health.
Allegedly, while the report was being written, Fred Kummerow (professor of comparative biosciences at the University of Illinois and early researcher of trans fats) was adamant that Americans should eat more eggs. The response from committee members was that Japanese people, who were very healthy, ate no eggs at all. This wasn’t true. When Kumerow went to lunch that day, he learned that eggs were a widely used and affordable source of protein in Japan. In fact, it’s extremely common in Japan to eat raw eggs, and they go through a specific cleaning process to mitigate risks of illness because of their popularity.
ARE THEY HEALTHY?
“One of the most biologically available proteins that exist in the human diet are egg whites,” explains Lee Murphy, MS-MPH, RDN, LDN, and Distinguished Lecturer at the Department of Nutrition at the University of Tennessee. Not only that, but the yolk of the egg is also incredibly beneficial. Yolks are full of important nutrients and minerals, including 90% of the egg’s B-12, B-6, folate, thiamine, iron, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, and pantothenic acid. This is all great stuff that our bodies need, but what about that fat and cholesterol? Is it all worth it?
Murphy’s answer is similar to her answer regarding any food: “You shouldn’t eat ten a day if you have high cholesterol, but you shouldn’t eat that much of anything in a day.” Indeed, people have died from drinking too much water, but water is needed for every living thing on our planet. Eggs are similarly necessary. Murphy makes it clear that there is no need to discourage a vegan way of life, but the diet requires a lot of careful care and meal planning in order to maintain a healthy body—more than most will commit.
Eggs and other animal products are a nutritional shortcut that many rely on, especially for protein. This is because all animal proteins include all the required essential amino acids to digest them, and plant proteins do not. Therefore, a true vegan will have to supplement these amino acids with other products for their daily protein intake alone—never mind every trace mineral they need.
Kummerow was an egg advocate until his death at the ripe age of 101 in 2015, and felt that cholesterol’s demonization was a big mistake. The main cause of heart disease, he decided, was trans-fats like the ones found in shortening, margarine, and hydrogenated oils. Over the course of his lifetime, Kummerow conducted multiple studies proving this connection and disproving the connection between cholesterol and heart disease. He analyzed the arteries of patients who had died from heart disease, finding that the common denominator was that they were filled with trans fats.
With a team of a dozen doctors in Japan, Kummerow conducted an analysis of the arteries of pigs from the time of their fetal development. The pigs were fed processed, trans-fatty foods and not cholesterol, but by the age of three, their arteries looked just like the human patients from his previous study under an electron microscope. Kummerow came to his conclusion: cholesterol was not the culprit in heart disease. He ate an egg a day into his hundredth year.
But Kummerow is not alone. Many other studies suggest cholesterol is just fine. In 2019, the American Heart Association’s advisory suggested that cholesterol had little to do with cardiovascular illness. A study conducted by Harvard University only two years ago found that an egg a day could actually aid in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases. The proven instances in which the cholesterol in eggs has an association with heart disease are only in those with type-2 diabetes—further evidence that blanket nutritional advice is not the way to collective health.
CAGE FREE? FREE RANGE?
Though eggs themselves are healthy, the packaging (like most packaging) can be misleading. Have you ever wondered what the difference between “cage-free,” “free range,” and “pasture-raised” could be? Unfortunately for the consumer, it’s not much, but not in the way you might assume. In the case of caged, cage-free, and free-range chickens, there is generally extreme overcrowding and a corn or soy based diet. A diet, says Sally Morell Fallon, President of the Weston A. Price Foundation, that will increase omega-6 (beyond what is needed) or estrogen in our food, respectively.
The majority of egg-laying hens in the United States get about sixty-seven square inches of space to themselves—not enough to stand up straight, and certainly not enough to preen. In cages, many hens are stacked on top of one another, meaning lower levels are awash with excrement. “Cage-free” is a fairly easy label for a farm to get on their box, because it really only means that: there is not a literal cage around those hens. They also will be given unlimited access to food and water, but hens in cage-free farms can still be in grossly overcrowded and dirty conditions, as cage-free does not dictate any square footage per hen requirement. Cage-free hens do not have access to the outdoors. Additionally, there is no nutritional difference between a caged hen's egg and a cage-free hen's eggs.
Free-range hens have some access to an outdoor space during their laying cycles, and like cage-free hens will also have unlimited access to food and water. However, the requirement ends there. Free-range hens can be just as overcrowded and subject to the same poor conditions as caged and cage-free birds. They just get to breathe a bit of outdoor air. This means free-range eggs are less likely to carry salmonella, but they are still no more nutritionally beneficial. To be certified humane, the space requirement is two square feet per hen.
On its own, the label “pasture-raised” means nothing: the FDA has no regulation around that label. However, if a carton of eggs is “pasture raised” and “certified humane,” that means that the hens are given 108 square feet each to roam, as well as a barn for cover when they please. Eggs laid by hens in these conditions tend to be higher in vitamins A, E, and the sought after omega-3s, meaning this is where spending extra money on your carton of eggs will actually benefit you. Certified humane and pasture-raised chickens are able to eat a more natural chicken diet of worms, grubs, and bugs—healthy hens make healthy eggs.
Other labels you might find on your egg carton, like “non-GMO,” “vegetarian fed,” or “natural,” should not be thought of as selling points. Vegetarian-fed hens aren’t let outside, or they would be eating bugs. They just aren’t given other chickens as feed, but soy and corn. Non-GMO doesn’t mean organic, it only means their diets aren’t genetically modified. That tells us nearly nothing about them. “Natural” is the worst of all across every food package: it only tells us that artificial ingredients haven’t been added. In animal products like eggs, this means zilch: the animals can be treated in any way and fed anything.
Whether or not you can afford the very best of eggs made by the happiest hens, they’re a great part of a daily meal plan. If you have an extra few dollars each week, certified humane pasture-raised eggs will give you bonus nutrition for your dollar. The rest of egg-labeling can be ignored, from a personal health standpoint. The benefits of an egg-a-day are documented regardless, so scramble, poach, boil, and fry away.
HOW TO REALLY POACH AN EGG
- A small bowl or ramekin
- Deep, 2 quart saucepan
- Slotted spoon
- 2 teaspoons of white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- Add water to your saucepan so that it goes at least one inch up the side of the pot. Mix in your white vinegar and salt, and bring it all to a simmer over medium heat.
- Crack your egg into a small bowl or ramekin.
- When the water is simmering, use a utensil to stir it into a small “whirlpool.” Drop your egg gently into the center.
- Remove your pot from the heat, cover it, and let it sit for about five minutes.
- Scoop it out with a slotted spoon and enjoy! Drop it on a toasted english muffin with some hollandaise sauce and homefries, or eat it all on its own. Congratulations.