I’ve gotten many questions lately about eggs as well as numerous people proclaiming that they’ve been eschewing the cholesterol and fat filled yolk, savoring only the white. Is it unhealthy to eat eggs everyday? If I eat eggs does it mean that I can’t eat hamburgers? Isn’t all that cholesterol going to give me a heart attack??
In fact, the yolk is where almost all of the nutrients of the egg are. It contains 13 essential nutrients, those that your body can’t make that you must obtain through your diet. Remember that besides making delicious omelets, fluffy soufflés, and luscious custards, eggs have the potential to make life. The yolk’s purpose is to nourish the growing chick embryo. Unlike a human embryo the chick doesn’t have a practically all-you-can-eat feeding tube connected to it as it develops. All of the nourishment that it will get for developing from one cell to a cute fuzzy chick must be in its little incubation room. As you can imagine that process takes a lot of energy and nutrients, so it’d better be good--and it’s all in the yolk.
The white, while indispensible, merely serves as a shock absorber and a medium for gas exchange for the growing chicken. No part of the white is actually consumed by the young chick.
Let me give you a breakdown:
You’re thinking ‘ok, so most of the nutrients are in the yolk, but so is all of the fat and cholesterol!’ There is actually no evidence that dietary cholesterol or saturated fat lead to cardiovascular disease. (For more information, read science writer Gary Taubes’ article in Science). Cholesterol and saturated fat intake in America has decreased—dietary fat went from 40% of total calories in the 1970s to 34% in 2010, and Americans are certainly not getting healthier. Cholesterol levels are internally regulated by the liver, which must produce cholesterol in its absence from the diet. In fact, 75% is synthesized internally.
You NEED cholesterol; it is:
- an integral component of cell membranes
- a precursor to numerous diversely functioning hormones
- a precursor of vitamin D
- used to repair damaged blood vessels
- an antioxidant that protects from free radical damage
- important in the utilization of serotonin, a mood regulator
With so many different kinds of eggs on the market right now it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make decisions. Cage free, vegetarian fed, free range, organic, pasture raised…what’s the difference??
Factory farmed eggs: I’m not even going to discuss these because nobody should even be considering eating these. If you want to read about the gory details click here.
Vegetarian fed: The chickens are fed a vegetarian diet. This label exists merely to instill some warm fuzzies in the consumer because as you probably know, chickens AREN’T vegetarian. They like to feed on rogue worms and bugs in the field. But these chickens probably never see the field. They’re likely kept in the same conditions as factory farmed chickens, the difference being that they aren’t fed animal byproducts.
Cage free: Marginally better off than their factory farmed cousins, these birds aren’t kept in cages but are still live in very high densities. High enough, in fact, that they still have their beaks burned off.
Free-range: Similar to their cage-free brethren these chickens are kept in large barns except they are offered “access to the outdoors.” Often what that means in practice is that the barn has a small door or porch at the end of it, which most of the chickens have no idea exists. These chickens may be fed animal byproducts or GMO feed.
Omega-3 enriched: These chickens get feed supplemented with flax seeds or algae to ostensibly increase the omega-3 fatty acid content of the egg.
Organic: These chickens only get organic feed—no animal byproducts or GMOs and no prophylactic antibiotics. Access to the outdoors is similar to those in free-range conditions.
Pasture-raised: There is currently no regulation for this category as it’s the newest label to join the group, but it generally means that the chickens are actually roaming around outside with the opportunity to eat farm scraps and bugs. Animal Welfare Approved and other organizations offer certification in the attempt to standardize the label. Look for the logo to encourage high quality standards:
For more information on which farms are keeping the highest standards refer to the Organic Egg Scorecard put out by the Cornucopia Institute.
Eggs laid by chickens that have truly been out on pasture are nutritionally superior. Although chickens raised organically have been fed organic feed, the feed is usually composed of corn and soy, often imported from China and India. A study done by Mother Earth comparing the nutritional profiles of USDA commercial eggs with pasture-raised eggs. Pasture-raised eggs were found to have:
- 2/3 more vitamin A
- 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
- 3 times more vitamin E
- 7 times more beta carotene
Corn and soy are additionally sources of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, of which most Americans consume too much. Eggs that are not pasture-raised have been shown to contain up to 19 times more omega-6 fatty acids.
The U.S. is the largest exporter of conventional soybeans, but increasing demand for organics has ironically made the country a huge importer of the organic variety, most of which goes to feed for animals. More on this from NPR’s “All Things Considered” from a few days ago.
It’s really hard to tell how good an egg is just by looking at it, but here are some hallmarks of a high quality egg:
- a hard shell, which can only come from a healthy, robust chicken
- a dark orange yolk, an indication that they’re full of carotenoids, which come from a diet of dark green vegetables
- a yolk that stands round and high from the white after the egg is broken
- farm-fresh eggs don’t peel easily after they’ve been boiled because the membrane just inside the egg hasn’t had a chance to separate from the shell, something that only happens with time
Eggs purchased at the farmers’ market are usually collected just days before they come to market. When eggs hit the shelf at the supermarket they are often already one month old. These eggs are often treated with mineral oil (a petroleum product) after they are washed with any of a variety of chemicals. This kind of washing strips the eggshell of its natural cuticle, a layer that prevents the egg from going bad. Eggshells, containing thousands of pores, are permeable to any of these chemicals.
Give it a Try!
We’re coming out of winter but it’s finally begun to rain, so I still crave a good soup.
Stracciatella alla Romana is a central Italian egg drop soup, traditionally served at the beginning of Easter lunch. It’s warm, comforting, and very easy to prepare. Delicate strands of egg and Parmesan float in a luscious meat broth with winter greens.
Stracciatella alla Romana
6 cups of chicken broth
1 bunch lacinato kale, cut into thin strips
1/3 c Parmagiano Reggiano
zest from 1 lemon
3 T flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 T lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
drizzle of olive oil
In a pot, gently heat chicken broth, add kale and cook at a low simmer until wilted, about 4-5 minutes.
Meanwhile in a bowl, gently whisk eggs with cheese and lemon zest.
Give the broth a couple of swirls with a spoon to make a gentle whirlpool and slowly drizzle the egg mixture into the broth. Stir as necessary to form loose strands of egg.
Salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and add lemon juice and parsley.
Serve with a drizzle of olive oil in each bowl.
Here’s to new beginnings!