I happen to really love eggs, love them. They are versatile, rich, delicious and uniquely nutritious. Eggs are the standard by which other proteins are measured. Egg protein has the right mix of essential amino acids that we need for tissue-building, and egg protein is said to be the highest quality food protein known, second only to mother’s milk.
Eggs provide 22 percent of the adult’s daily requirement of choline, an essential nutrient for brain and memory functions, and egg yolk is one of the few foods that naturally contain vitamin D. Eggs offer carotene, calcium, iron, phosphorus, zinc, thiamin, B6, folate, B12 and pantothenic acid, to name just a few of their important nutrients.
Although much of an egg’s protein is contained in the white, the rich flavor of eggs comes from the yolk, as does its fat, cholesterol, and most of the other important nutrients. An egg has 4.5 grams of fat, of which 1.5 grams is saturated fat and 2 grams are mono-unsaturated.
The color of the yolk depends on the diet of the hen. A diet rich in yellow-orange plant pigments called xanthophylls, will result in a brighter yolk. The blander in color the diet is, the lighter the yolks will be. A hen fed white cornmeal produces almost colorless yolks. Marigold petals are often fed to hens to produce brighter eggs, but artificial color additives are not permitted.
Granted, eggs have had a bad rap in the cholesterol department. However, an increasing body of scientific research is showing that the real offender in raising blood cholesterol levels is actually saturated fat in food, not cholesterol in food. In fact, the American Heart Association has changed its guidelines on eggs to say that there is no longer a specific recommendation on the number of egg yolks a person may consume in a week. That said, as mentioned above, remember that one yolk contains 1.5 grams of saturated fat.
Some of us gravitate towards brown products because they seem less refined and more natural. In the case of the egg, it only denotes the breed of the hen. Shell color has no bearing on quality, flavor, nutrition value, cooking characteristics or shell thickness. Breeds with white feathers and ear lobes lay white eggs; breeds with red feathers and ear lobes lay brown eggs. (Who knew hens had earlobes?) The Rhode Island Red, New Hampshire and Plymouth Rock lay brown eggs (while the regal Araucana lays gorgeous pale blue eggs!).
All of this nutrition and flavor, but factory farming gives me the major heebie-jeebies. Most conventional egg farms use confined, high-density, housing, and most laying hens are caged in houses of 40,000-100,000 birds. I won’t go into the details of cage space per bird, but let’s just say that I won’t be buying any conventional eggs. Ever. Many conventionally caged laying hens cannot engage in many of their natural behaviors, including perching, nesting, foraging or even spreading their wings.
On a chirpier note, the market for organic and free-roaming eggs is growing quickly, which means that more farms are transitioning to more humane production practices. Hurray for the hens! Almost all supermarkets are now offering some variation of eggs produced more sanely, and eggs from farmer’s markets are often truly free range. Here are what the labels mean:
- Certified Organic
Organic eggs are laid by hens fed with an all-vegetarian diet that has been grown without pesticides, fungicides, herbicides or commercial fertilizers. The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, and are required to have outdoor access, although the specifics of their outdoor time are not regulated. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
- Certified Humane
Eggs that bear Certified Humane labeling are from uncaged birds inside barns or warehouses, with no requirement for outdoor time. They must be able to engage in natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing, and stocking density and the number of perches and nesting boxes are regulated. Certified Humane comes from a program of Humane Farm Animal Care, and the label requires third-party compliance.
- Free Range or Free Roaming
The USDA has guidelines for free-range poultry, but the guidelines are less defined for egg production. Producers labeling eggs as free range or free roaming do not need to demonstrate to the USDA that the hens have been allowed access to the outside. True free-range eggs are produced by hens raised outdoors or that can go outside daily, typically they live uncaged inside barns or warehouses and can nest and forage. This label does not require third-party certification.
Most conventionally raised laying hens are kept in cages, while cage-free hens are kept, you guessed it, uncaged! (Although usually in barns or warehouses.) They are allowed to perform in natural behaviors however, the label does not guarantee that the bird had access to the outdoors. In addition, this term is not regulated by USDA, and the label does not require third-party certification.
These birds are given a more natural feed than that received by conventional laying hens, but this label alone says nothing about the animals’ living conditions.
The bottom line when selecting eggs, is to opt for organic and/or free-range if they are available. They have less antibiotic or hormone residue and have a higher omega-3 and vitamin E content. They are a better nutritional choice, have better flavor and are produced by farmers who generally support the use of renewable resources. And if all that’s not enough, at least consider the happiness of the hen!