Friday, July 15, 2011

An Egg, by Any Other Hen

Deciding to include eggs in your weekly diet is the easy part. Deciding where to buy your eggs and how picky to be, is the hard part. At least it was for me. I mean, I want to buy the tastiest, healthiest ones, but I don't have the time or budget to drive to a small-town New Hampshire farm stand and spend $4.50 every time I want a carton of eggs. So I decided to check out what you get for your money here in the city, and what all those carton labels really mean.

A year ago in July 2010, TIME magazine reported in bold headlines that organic cage-free eggs are "More Expensive but No Healthier" than other supermarket eggs. I'm going to go out on a limb and say, that is incorrect! Not because I want hens to run around the barnyard like they used to (although I do), but because... well, I'll get to that. First, a little snooping around the dairy aisle, a farm in Lincoln, MA and the Internet.

First, my trip to the farm, to find out where brown eggs come from.

From chickens with brown feathers. White eggs come from chickens with white feathers. So there you have it. Pink and blue Easter eggs... I'm not sure, and the farmer assured me he'd not raised any blue chickens. Both brown and white hens produce equally edible, equally nutritious eggs.

Next question, does the color of the yoke make a difference?

You can see evidence of beta-carotenes. They give carrots that lovely orange color, and they give egg yolks an orangey tint. The carotenes eggs contain are Lutein and Zeaxanthin. (There won't be a quiz later.) Both are antioxidants that protect against macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in people over 55 yrs old. So yes, when the yolks are more orange, the eggs have higher amounts of health-enhancing carotenoids.

How do you decipher an egg carton label?

  1. Cage Free vs. Free Range. The label "cage free" means that the chickens were not caged. However, that doesn't mean they got any exercise with their little chicken legs. On commercial farms they are often packed tightly into barns with virtually no room to "roam". And if you think that's a misleading label, try "Free-range". Commercial free-range eggs are given outdoor access as little as 5 minutes a day.* We're kind of being fleeced by these labels, doncha think? I mean, if I told you my dog lived "cage free" you wouldn't expect to find him confined to a closet, would you?

  2. Omega-3 Enriched. This label means that the chickens laying these eggs were given flaxseed in their feed. Flaxseed is rich in Omega-3 antioxidants, or EFA's. Since our body can't make it's own omega-3 EFA's, we have to get them from food. Research shows that these same antioxidants help build cell membranes in our brains and protect our vision. So, omega-3 eggs may indeed be better-for-you eggs.

  3. Vegetarian Fed. That means the chickens weren't given any animal products or by-products to eat. I can't find a report that they are any healthier for humans than non-vegetarian fed eggs, so this is a matter of personal preference and how you feel about feeding chickens bits of animals higher on the food chain than they are.

OK, NOW I'm going to throw in the monkey wrench. There's another egg category, Pasture Raised. Those are hens who actually graze on pasture, outside. Like the pictures in children's books. Often on organic farms. (They cost more to buy.) And that is a bird of a different feather. (sorry, these puns are sooo easy!) Remember that TIME article I mentioned? Well, Mother Earth News did their own test, and dispute TIME's egg findings, too. They say:

"Most of the eggs currently sold in supermarkets are nutritionally inferior to eggs produced by hens raised on pasture. Our testing has found that, compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain: ~averages from 14 studies, compared with USDA results~

• 1/3 less cholesterol
• 1/4 less saturated fat
• 2/3 more vitamin A
• 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
• 3 times more vitamin E
• 7 times more beta carotene"

So how can the USDA study, reported by TIME, say that organic, cage-free eggs are no healthier? Easy, they only analyzed the egg-white. No yoke. (I know, please don't shoot me.) The USDA study used
an egg-quality metric developed by food technologist Raymond Haugh in 1937 that measures only the protein in the egg-white. You read that right, 1937. You know, ten years before the disposable diaper was invented. Now that's what I call a low-tech study. Low tech, irrelevant... I rest my case.

* source:
** blogger would like to thank NPR, Mother Earth News online, and
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