Americans have a love/hate relationship with eggs. Versatile, affordable and delicious, eggs are an excellent source of protein and some important nutrients. But these days, eggs are viewed with caution for their high cholesterol content and lingering food safety concerns. Still, eggs are a nutritious option for most people. When you are shopping for eggs, keep these essential tips in mind; they will help you make wise purchases.
Eggs and your health
First and foremost, eggs are an inexpensive source of high-quality protein. You get 6 grams of protein in just one egg (about half in the white, half in the yolk), about the same as in 1 ounce of meat, poultry or fish. And eggs aren’t high in saturated fat, especially when compared to meat. They do, however, have a lot of cholesterol (all in the yolk), and therein lies much debate and uncertainty.
Eggs are a valuable source of choline, a B vitamin deemed essential not long ago for all cell functioning, especially brain neurotransmitters. It also helps maintain peak muscle function and helps prevent fatty liver by removing cholesterol from that organ. (Ironic, then, that eggs are shunned for their cholesterol content.) In addition, eggs provide vitamins A and D and are a top source of the harder-to-find carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which research suggests help fend off age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in older adults.
Understanding egg products
Buying eggs used to be simple. There was little to deliberate at the egg case other than what size you wanted, and maybe brown versus white. These days, there are many more options to consider. Here’s the lowdown on the differences between them:
- Brown eggs: These are no more healthful than white eggs. The color of an egg’s shell depends on the hen’s genetics and has nothing to do with nutrition. Some chickens lay blue and green eggs.
- Fertile eggs: There is no health benefit to eating fertile eggs, considered a delicacy in some cultures; in terms of nutritional value they are virtually identical to unfertilized eggs, but they spoil more quickly. Most eggs sold are infertile anyway.
- Lutein-enhanced eggs: These come from hens fed marigold extract to bump up the lutein content. A low intake of lutein (a carotenoid) has been implicated as a risk factor in age-related macular degeneration.
- Omega-3-enriched: These eggs have a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids, but you need to read the label to determine the type present. If the hens’ feed was enriched with flaxseed meal, the eggs will have increased levels of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), a plant form of omega-3 fat. Once eaten, however, only a small proportion of ALA gets converted to the long-chain heart-healthy omega-3 fats known as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). If the feed is enriched directly with EPA and DHA from fish oil or marine algae, the label will show that the eggs have higher levels of these nutrients—but still not much. Keep in mind that as with all specialty eggs, these cost more.
- Animal Welfare Approved: This is the highest degree of humane rules and auditing standards. Hens must be cage-free with continual access to outdoor perching and ability to engage in natural behaviors, such as nesting, spreading wings, dust bathing, etc. Beak cutting is prohibited.
- Cage-free: There are currently no national standards for cage-free egg production in the U.S., but the term usually means the hens are not in cages (though still indoors). It’s considered more humane than the crowded cages that house the majority of egg-laying hens in the U.S., because cage-free hens may have more room to walk and spread their wings, for example—but the birds may still be subject to other questionable practices, such as beak cutting.
- Certified Humane: These eggs are from hens that are not caged and must have enough space to engage in natural behaviors—but they may be indoors all the time. And beak cutting is still allowed. There is third-party auditing for compliance.
- Certified Organic: Organic eggs come from hens fed certified organically grown vegetarian feed, with no added hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides. The hens are not caged and must have access to outdoors—however, the length of time outdoors and the quality of the space is not defined. Moreover, forced molting and debeaking are still permitted. If you choose to buy organic, look for the USDA Organic seal. Keep in mind, though, that organic eggs aren’t necessarily safer from bacteria than other eggs; it depends on the sanitation conditions of that farm and other factors. Nor are they more nutritious than conventionally produced ones.
- Food Alliance Certified: Hens are cage-free and must have access to outdoors or natural daylight. There are specific limits on the density of the bird population. Beak cutting is allowed. Compliance is verified by third-party auditing.
- Natural: This fuzzy term is not regulated by any organization or federal agency and can mean different things to different egg producers. It does not preclude the use of antibiotics or anything else in the hens, and there are no standard rules about chicken feed or living conditions.
- Free-range or Free-roaming: Egg-laying hens are not caged and must have access to the outdoors. But—and this is key—the amount of time and space provided is not mandated, and there’s no way of knowing whether the birds have actually gone outside.
- United Egg Producers Certified: This is a voluntary trade group program that most egg producers adhere to. Hens are supposed to be given nutritious feed, clean water, light and fresh air, but are caged indoors in a given amount of space—67 to 86 square inches of space per bird (at most, that’s about the area of a single sheet of letter-sized paper). Forced molting is prohibited, but beak trimming is allowed so the birds don’t harm each other. According to the Humane Society, the UEP seal is “based on standards that are falsely claimed to ensure that hens are treated humanely,” and the guidelines permit routine inhumane factory farm practices.
Eggs: good-to-know facts
- Temperature is critical to egg safety. Store eggs in the coldest part of the refrigerator in their original carton, not in those little egg cups that some refrigerators have in the door.
- There’s often debate about whether to wash eggs. Don’t. It actually increases the risk of contamination because water can enter through the porous shell. When laid, eggs have a natural waxy bloom for protection, and washing removes this. Commercially produced eggs are washed and sanitized, then producers apply a thin coating of wax to the shells to protect their porous surface from absorbing bacteria or odors.
- The color of the yolk depends on what the hen ate: wheat and barley produce a light yolk, corn produces a medium-yellow yolk and marigold petals, a deep yellow. Darker yellow yolks often have more carotenoids.
- A blood spot indicates that a small blood vessel on the yolk’s surface broke while the egg was forming. It does not mean the egg is fertile. It is harmless, but you can remove it with the tip of a knife.
- A cloudy albumen (white) indicates a very fresh egg. It’s due to carbon dioxide inside the egg that has not yet escaped. Pasteurized eggs also have cloudier whites. Another sign of freshness—the stringy white strands inside some eggs, called chalazae, which keep the yolk centered in the albumen. The chalazae diminish over time. It’s okay to eat them.
- Hardboiled eggs are easier to peel when made from older eggs, because an air pocket develops in the tip of the shell as an egg ages. To avoid a green ring from forming around the yolk (a sulfur reaction), do not overcook; put eggs in a pot of water, bring the water to a boil, then turn off the heat and let them sit in the water for 15 minutes. Then plunge them into cold water to stop the cooking and make them easier to peel. If you’re not eating the eggs right away, put them in the refrigerator; they’ll keep for about a week, no matter how old they were when they were cooked.
Healthy grocery shopping tips for eggs
- It doesn’t matter whether you buy white or brown eggs. There are no nutritional differences.
- Check the carton for a sell-by date. Assuming they are properly stored, eggs are good for four to six weeks after this date. After that they will suffer mostly in quality and appearance—how well the yolk stands up when fried, for example.
- Open the carton to be sure you aren’t buying cracked eggs, since this would increase the risk of contamination. Verifying that each egg moves easily in the carton is a good way to check whether there has been a crack or a leak. If you find a cracked one after you get home, discard it.
- If you can afford it and it matters to you, buy organic eggs or eggs that were produced more humanely. You will pay a premium, however.
- Buy eggs graded “Large” for use in recipes. That’s the standard size used when recipes are tested.