Are eggs safe to eat – and which ones?
July 27th, 2016 by Holly Cornish
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about some new studies suggesting eggs may increase cancer risk (Issue #621). The finding is not conclusive, but it’s worrying. I’ve cut down to a couple of eggs a week. Free of hormones and antibiotics, of course.
With some studies labeling eggs as key sources of nutrition and others pointing to the hidden health risks, it would be nice to know the truth. The problem is that the truth, like so many aspects of healthcare and nutrition, is subject to interpretation. It’s not even clear which type of eggs to buy. Here’s what I mean…
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What’s really important when you shop for eggs?
Eggs are one of the most versatile foods around. That’s probably why the average American eats more than 260 eggs a year.
If that doesn’t impress you, consider this: The United States egg industry brought in $7.1 billion in April 2016. And in March 2016, organic and cage-free egg production accounted for ten percent of total “table egg” laying flocks (approximately 30.1 million hens). That ten percent is just about equally divided between organic hens and cage-free hens.
But what exactly does that mean to us as consumers? Does it matter what type of egg you buy, and what label it has? Does it matter where you buy it? Because as far as I can tell, plenty of people are confused about where their eggs come from, and which option is the best.
An egg is an egg… or not?
Here are some of the labels set up to confuse and confound us while egg shopping, along with what they really mean:
Cage-free eggs: Like their label, cage-free eggs are produced by chickens that aren’t housed in a cage. They must instead live in an open space, though the open space may be inside a crowded henhouse with no access to the outdoors. Still, it’s entirely possible that those chickens still live in cramped conditions, and that their ability to move around is limited. Cage-free doesn’t mean organic. Conventional eggs can be cage-free; the hens can be fed chemical-contaminated feed and treated with hormones and antibiotics.
Free-range/free-roaming eggs: Hens that lay these eggs are one step up from cage-free, given that they have some form of outdoor access. But the quality, amount, and duration of their time outside can vary from farm to farm.
Pasture-raised eggs: Chickens that lay pasture-raised eggs are typically raised on green, open pastures, where they’re able to forage for bugs and feed on grass, seeds, and insects. The chickens spend most of their day outside, sometimes with other farm animals. They typically sleep in a barn at night. They’re free of both hormones and antibiotics.
Organic eggs: Hens laying these eggs must eat only organic feed, meaning it contains no pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides, as well as no GMOs and no slaughterhouse by-products. To qualify as organic, they also must have outdoor access and can never be caged.
All four of these egg types are superior to conventional “factory farm” eggs. For the first two types the nutritional difference is probably minor but at least the birds are treated more humanely. But keep in mind that while there are a lot of good reasons to eat eggs produced organically, or via cage-free or free-range methods, you will never get an ironclad guarantee that they don’t contain salmonella. That’s really dependent on the way each egg farmer manages their eggs, including washing, packing, and storing.
Many commercial egg farms are still reeling from the 2010 salmonella debacle where more than 500 million eggs were recalled after nearly 2,000 people got sick with the dreaded fever, cramping, and diarrhea combo.
FDA inspectors visited the two Iowa companies that produced the tainted eggs and found mice, flies, and wild birds inside the hen houses—not to mention hens that had gotten out of their cages and were wandering around in manure piles.
The public had already been criticizing commercial egg farms for the restrictive, too-small cages they used. What followed was a surge in consumer demand for organic, cage-free, and free-range eggs.
That’s one of the reasons for recent announcements from major food brands like McDonald’s and Starbucks, which plan to use only cage-free eggs going forward: It’s what many consumers want. (But don’t head out for an Egg McMuffin just yet—McDonald’s predicts they won’t pull this off till the end of 2025.)
Now, I’m going to mention an unpleasant truth here: chickens poop and lay eggs out of the same hole, whether or not they’re organic, conventional or pasture-raised. All eggs are at risk of some bacterial contamination.
That means any given hen or any given egg may be a salmonella carrier. This isn’t a worry – the world is full of bacteria and your immune system can deal with it if it’s healthy. It’s excessive levels of salmonella contamination that pose a problem, especially for people who are fragile – babies, the elderly, people who are immune-compromised. I buy organic eggs but I handle them as though there may be some salmonella contamination – I don’t let them touch other food and I wash hands after handling the shells.
How much does the health of an egg
depend on the chicken?
Some folks say happier chickens make healthier eggs. And that appears to be true, given that pasture-raised hens, which have a more natural diet due to foraging outside in the fresh air, actually do produce eggs with lower levels of fat.
This comes from a study out of Penn State where they also found that pasture-raised eggs contain 38% more vitamin A per egg, more vitamin D, and twice as much vitamin E. On top of that, they have double the total omega-3 fatty acids and carotene levels. (Note that in the study, pastured hens were relocated to areas where they could forage on legumes and mixed grasses, and were then compared with hens that received a commercial diet.)
Paul Patterson, co-investigator of the project, explained that chickens can quickly assimilate dietary nutrients because of their short digestive tracts. That means any fat-soluble vitamins they eat are quickly transferred to the liver and then on to the egg yolks the chicken creates.
Yet letting chickens forage around grassy pastures isn’t a perfect answer. True, the eggs themselves appear more nutritious. But another result of the study was that pastured hens weighed 14 percent less than commercial birds, and put out 15 percent fewer eggs. This is mostly a problem for the farmer, not for us consumers. But the lower level of productivity does mean these “special” poultry products are more expensive.
The researchers concluded that pastured hens would need additional mash feed just to sustain body weight and egg production at a level equal to commercial hens. At the same time, this kind of supplementation would lower the omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin A and E concentrations of their eggs.
If we’re just examining eggs for our own nutritional purposes, it’s worth mentioning a study published a few years ago by Food Chemistry that found egg yolks—including yolks from conventional chickens—contain two amino acids that carry the potent antioxidants tryptophan and tyrosine. And both of these play a key role in the prevention of both cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Egg yolks are also a rich source of lutein and zeaxanthin, both part of the carotenoid class of antioxidants. However, the cooking process can destroy as much as 50% of the nutrients in egg yolks. On the other hand, eating raw eggs can put you at greater risk of salmonella.
But as some health advisers say, raw eggs from organic or pasture-raised chickens are unlikely to carry salmonella, so those are your best bet if you’re looking for a raw egg source. Given that conventional eggs are more likely to have come from hens raised in unsanitary conditions, I’d never advise someone to eat those eggs raw.
Thankfully, you’ve got a choice…
It’s hard to know if the right way to go for disease prevention, and cancer prevention in particular, is to completely give up certain foods linked to cancer—like eggs and a host of other foods—or to simply opt for their healthier counterparts.
I’m inclined to think the link between eggs and cancer – if there really is
one – is a link involving conventional chickens raised with hormones and antibiotics. But I don’t know that for sure. That’s why I’ve reduced my own egg consumption.