Eggs, those little oval perfect food bodies in a shell - the ones that need to peel right for the universe to be okay...are they really an issue for cholesterol? Can we get too many of them? How many can we eat? Which ones should we buy - is free range better than Omega 3 eggs? Should you throw out the ones with blood in them? Is the white sufficient to eat or should I be including the yolk? So many questions for such a little food-bite. It ends up though that those tasty morsels pack a major nutritional punch, but more on this after a little bit of egg trivia:
- Brown eggs and white eggs are from different breeds of chickens. They seem to have the same nutritional profile.
- Blood spots are more commonly found in brown eggs over white because it is harder to 'spot the spots' during the 'candling' process of egg grading. There is no health risk in eating these, but if you prefer, you can remove the spot with the end of your knife. The cause is a ruptured blood vessel, not fertilization as some people have suggested.
- You can tell the freshness of an egg by how prominent the chalazae is - this is the long strands that are attached to the yolk, ensuring that the yellow stays centered within the surrounding whites.
- The size of the egg is determined by the size of the chicken, so larger breeds and older chickens lay larger eggs.
Nutritionally, the egg whites provide about 57% of the protein in the egg plus 80% of the magnesium, 62% of Vitamin B2 (Riboflavins) and 90% of the Vitamin B3 (Niacin). Pop over to the yolk and we find 100% of the fat-soluble Vitamins A, E, D and K, the essential fat DHA, the brain-boosting phosphatidyl choline, the great-for-the-eyes antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, almost 100% of the rest of the B vitamins, calcium, and 43% protein. Clearly a whole egg is better than its parts, and the yolk provides the bulk of the nutrients.
Then there's the question of egg yolks and cholesterol.
The initial research that created the belief that eating egg yolk (or other cholesterol-rich foods) would increase blood cholesterol happened with the limited science that was available at the time, and assumed that high cholesterol in foods would naturally lead to high cholesterol in the blood. Research, and reviews of research, over the last twenty years has proven that not to be the case.
In 30% of people who are deemed hyperresponders, both their LDL and HDL cholesterol will rise with high-cholesterol foods, ultimately leading to little effect on the LDL:HDL ratio, which means no change in heart attack risk. In the 70% of the population deemed hyporesponders, there is no significant effect on cholesterol levels at all from eating cholesterol-rich foods.
In a 2007 study that looked at coronary heart disease risk in almost 10,000 people, aged 25 to 74, it was found that eating more than 6 eggs per week caused no more risk that not eating eggs at all or eating 6 or less. The exception to that is for diabetics. More than 6 eggs per week does increase the risk of heart disease in those who are diabetic.
All of the research that I looked at on pubmed concluded that for most of us, we can eat 1 or more eggs per day without concern for an increased risk of heart attack. For those who are diabetic, a general recommendation of 3 -4 per week seems to be the suggestion (for now, until further research is done). If your cholesterol levels are high, eggs are not the issue. But watch out for your saturated fat consumption, as well as the quality and balance of fat that you are choosing. You need lots of Omega 3 fats that you'll find in fatty fish, flax, chia and hemp seeds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds. If you eat meat, look for pasture-raised as it will have a greater proportion of Omega 3's and less saturated fat. Buy your oils in dark glass bottles. And watch your sugar and sweet consumption. Higher glucose and insulin levels cause damage to the artery walls which has a far greater impact on cardiovascular risk than eggs ever could.
Now, regarding commercial, free-run, free-range, organic, pasture-raised, Omega 3... here's a rundown on the differences:
Commercially-raised eggs - more than 90% of the 26 million chickens laying our eggs in Canada, are commercially farmed and confined to battery cages. This means that 5 -7 birds exist in a 3.5 square foot cage, with their beaks cut so they don't peck each other to bitsies while living their foreshortened, stressful and sickened life of one year. (Chickens raised naturally would normally live five to ten years).They are fed mixes of grain, corn, alfalfa, and slaughterhouse by-products, such as meat, bone, feather and blood meal, and oil/fat from all kinds of animals including their own species. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency allows eggs to be labeled 'vegetable-grain fed' if 85% of the feed meets that description. The other 15% can be animal by-products.
Oemga 3 eggs - these chickens are still raised in battery cages (unless it says otherwise) but the proportion of flax seed or fish meal in their food is increased to subsequently increase the Omega 3 fat. Does this make them more healthy than other eggs. The change in Omega 3 is negligible compared to naturally raised chickens who would get a similar amount of Omega 3 from the bugs and grass that they eat. Otherwise they are still raised inhumanely and produce eggs with lower nutritional values.
Free-run eggs - Hens roam freely inside a barn usually with access to nests to lay their eggs, but have no outside access. There are still thousands of them on the factory floor and over-crowding can cause aggression amongst the birds. Better than cages but still not an ideal chicken life. Also there is no regulating body to ensure that farms are meeting animal welfare standards. You would have to check with each farm to find out what their standards are.
Free-range eggs - Hens are free to roam (also on crowded factory floors) and have access to nest boxes for laying their eggs, but they also have access to the outdoors, weather permitting. However in Canada, there are no regulations on outdoor space, allotted time outside, or the amount of space inside. This designation is also not regulated to ensure animal welfare and again farmers will be different in the choices they make for their chickens.
Certified Organic - Hens have the benefits of roaming outdoors, weather permitting. They are guaranteed perches, nest boxes and dust bathing areas. There has to be a minimum indoor space of a little more than 2.5 sq ft. per bird (the most required space for chickens indoors). They are fed certified organic grains, seeds, eggs or whey but animal by-products are forbidden. No antibiotics are used, only herbs and homeopathic remedies. Organic farms are independently audited for animal welfare.
Pasture-raised - These usually come from smaller farms with only 100 to 500 birds. Hens are free to roam (contained in outdoor tent housing) eating grass, bugs,organic grains and vegetable scraps. In winter, they are indoors but have dried legumes to play and scratch in. This is luxury for an egg-laying chicken.
My recommendations: If you live in Ontario, choose Small Flock Delight pasture-raised eggs, Organic Meadow Certified Organic Eggs or if you live elsewhere in Canada or the US, check out if you have a farm close to you that sells pasture-raised eggs and animal products at EatWild.com.