Return of the Good Egg

By Anne Krueger

For the longest time I would not eat an egg. My boycott started in third grade after I saw chicks hatching at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I didn’t go so far as to rant about unborn chickens at the breakfast table, but I did give the evil eye to any family member who dared crack open an egg in front of me.

It wasn’t until two years later, after my mom pointed out that my favorite food—my Grandma Myrtle’s potato salad—was chock-full of hard-boiled eggs, that I abandoned my misguided fight to save the chicks.

But even being a potato salad fan didn’t make me a regular egg eater. My animal rights concerns were eventually replaced by health worries, and for more than a decade now I’ve shunned eggs because I have high cholesterol. Then my husband, who recently lost 40 pounds on a low-carb, high-protein diet, became a one-man cheerleading squad for the incredible ovals.

“They’re a complete protein,” he says, scrambling up a panful. When I note the roughly 600 milligrams of cholesterol he’s about to ingest (about 215 mg per egg), he suggests that I just eat the whites. “No cholesterol in those,” he points out with a superior smile (people who’ve lost weight can be hard to live with). “No taste either,” I retort (so can people who haven’t lost weight).

So he hauls out one of the cartons of egg substitute that now take up an entire shelf of our fridge. “This is really good,” he says, shaking it in my face. “All the taste and nutrients without the bad stuff.” He’s miffed when I roll my eyes and opt to have my egg-free breakfast later—alone.

The spirited debate about eggs extends far beyond my kitchen table. Like me, lots of folks can’t quite grasp that the egg is no longer the villain responsible for high cholesterol levels. “The hypothesis that high dietary cholesterol leads to high blood cholesterol became a standard claim in the 1970s and 1980s,” says Michael Lam, a specialist in nutritional medicine and director of medical education at the Academy of Anti-Aging Research in Pasadena, California. “Anyone who wished to avoid the chances of getting heart disease thought they had to restrict their intake of eggs.” And the American Heart Association led the way—to dramatic effect. After it recommended that egg intake be limited to three a week in 1972, annual per capita egg consumption plunged, eventually bottoming out at a low of 233 per person in 1991 (down from a high of 402 in 1945).

The only problem is, the evidence doesn’t support the theory. Studies have consistently failed to find a strong connection between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol levels. “The blood cholesterol values of 80 to 85 percent of people show little or no response to dietary cholesterol, regardless of how much dietary cholesterol they take in,” says Stuart Patton, scientific adviser to the American Council on Science and Health, a New York-based consumer education consortium, and professor emeritus of food science at Pennsylvania State University.

As it turns out, saturated fats and trans fatty acids have a far greater effect on blood cholesterol than does dietary cholesterol. We also now know that other heart disease risk factors, such as arterial inflammation and homocysteine, may be just as important indicators of heart disease risk as cholesterol levels are—or even more so. What’s more, an egg also delivers a healthy dose of betaine, which is known to lower homocysteine levels in the body.

But the final word on the debate may come from research at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. There, nutritionists are exploring whether a substance in eggs, called phosphatidylcholine, actually inhibits the amount of cholesterol in eggs that is absorbed by your bloodstream. “This may be why so many studies find no link between egg intake and blood cholesterol,” says Sung I. Koo, one of the researchers. The inhibition is not 100 percent, but the amount of dietary cholesterol absorbed is significantly less than what’s in an egg.

So where does this leave you—or me? If you have healthy levels of cholesterol and no family history of heart disease, it’s probably fine to eat a few, or even several, eggs a week. But if, like me, you’re in the 15 percent of the population that is sensitive to dietary cholesterol (my blood cholesterol is high and zooms about in response to what I eat) or has genetically high blood cholesterol levels, you’ll have to watch how much saturated fat and cholesterol you eat, whether it comes from eggs or any other high-cholesterol food, like shrimp, liver, or red meat. The conservative American Heart Association still recommends limiting dietary cholesterol to no more than 300 mg a day. If you have heart disease or diabetes, the recommended daily intake drops to 200 mg.

But the burden is off the egg. “We’re not picking on eggs,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University and vice-chairwoman of the American Heart Association’s nutrition committee. “Eggs are just part of a dietary plan like any other food.” And there’s no reason we shouldn’t make them part of a regular diet, especially considering how good they are for us.

Michael Lam is among those who have been touting eggs for years. They’re not only good for our health, he says, they may actually offset some of the effects of aging. He notes that eggs are a great dietary source of lutein and zeaxanthin, which can reduce the risk of cataracts by up to 20 percent and help prevent age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the elderly. “I believe that moderate egg consumption—one per day—should be an integral part of a complete antiaging diet,” Lam says. In fact, his version of the food pyramid puts eggs on the recommended daily foods level. “It’s the second most nutritious food, after mother’s milk,” he says, “full of vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids.”

Other reasons to recommend the egg? One large orb delivers only 1.5 grams of saturated fat, but 10 percent of the recommended daily allowance for protein (6 grams), 15 percent of the daily value for riboflavin, and 4 percent or more of the daily values for folate, iron, vitamins A, B-6, and B-12, as well as phosphorus and zinc. All this and only 75 calories per oval.

That’s all my 85-year-old dad needs to hear. He’s eaten an egg a day for ten years and is every waitress’s nightmare. (“Sunny-side up, runny but not too runny, not too much jiggle but not too hard.”) And even though he recently had quadruple bypass surgery, his doctors agree that his daily egg is just fine. The truth is, given that an ice cream bar is his other preferred food, the protein- and nutrient-filled egg looks pretty good to them. In fact, many experts are high on eggs simply because of what this nutrient-dense food can replace. “I would be much more concerned about carbohydrates and sugars than I would be about eggs,” says Lam, who believes that cardiovascular disease is more directly correlated to sugar and starch consumption than to cholesterol intake.

He makes a good point. How can I single out the egg on my plate and not take a hard look at the company it keeps? When I do have eggs it’s usually in combination with bacon, toast and jelly, or buttery hash browns. If you look at it that way, the egg is certainly the healthiest thing on the table. Talk about guilt by association! So maybe I’ll join my husband and whip up a few of the new low-cholesterol eggs and some veggies into a nice omelet and ditch the rest of that stuff.

Well, maybe not. It’s no fun to eat healthfully when somebody is smirking at you from across the table.

Nouveau Eggs
Today you can have your egg and eat it, too—even if you’re watching your cholesterol intake as I am. The egg section in today’s run-of-the-mill supermarket is bulging with options, including low-cholesterol and low-fat versions, and even eggs with added omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E. But which of them live up to their claims? Our shopper’s guide to the new eggs may help you decide. 

Free-farmed is a designation created by the American Humane Association’s Farm Animal Services. If you want eggs from chickens that have been treated humanely, this is the phrase to look for. 
Bottom line: This label guarantees that egg-laying hens are antibiotic-free and have access to clean water, food, and the great outdoors.

Organic means it’s monitored by the USDA’s National Organic Program. This label really does mean what it says, which is that eggs are produced by hens that aren’t caged and that have outdoor privileges. To earn the “organic” label, hens must be fed an organic, vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides.
Bottom line: The theory is that a hen that’s eaten a more healthful, varied diet may produce a more healthful egg. But it remains to be seen whether or not organic eggs are better for you.

Cage-free and free-range are said to come from hens that have been treated humanely by producers. 
Bottom line: Don’t bother. “Cage-free” and “free range” are both terms that are neither well defined nor well regulated. It could mean that the chicken isn’t caged but rather packed into a barn with no outside privileges or crammed into a cage and allowed occasional five minute-excursions onto a concrete pad. And there’s no conclusive evidence that cage-free or free-range eggs offer any real health benefits.

Enriched deliver supplemental vitamin E and/or heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. They were first created by egg producers in an effort to offset the egg’s bad reputation and boost sales and they’ve become popular with the health-conscious and those who don’t eat the recommended 12 ounces of omega-3-rich fish each week. Brands include Pilgrim’s Pride’s EggsPlus, which are enriched with 20 percent of the U.S. recommended daily allowance for vitamin E and contain the same level of omega-3 fatty acids as three ounces of salmon. Petaluma Farms’ Gold Circle DHA eggs are laid by chickens that eat a DHA-rich diet of algae. (DHA, short for docosahexaenoic acid, is one of the three forms of omega-3 fatty acids.) Your store may even have its own enriched egg brand.
Bottom line: There’s nothing wrong with getting your omega-3s this way, especially if you can’t count on eating three servings per week of fish.

Low-cholesterol and low-fat are another twist on the omega-3 trend. Eggland’s Best hens eat a vegetarian feed of grains, canola oil, rice bran, alfalfa, sea kelp, and vitamin E. The result is an egg that has 100 mg of omega-3s (compared to 35 for the average egg), seven times the vitamin E of an ordinary egg, only 180 mg of cholesterol (compared to the typical 215), and 25 percent less saturated fat. NaturEggs and Low Fat Omega 3 from Egg Innovations also are nutrient-enriched as well as low-fat/low-cholesterol options. 
Bottom line: Fat-conscious folks who don’t want to eat just the white will like this lower-fat version, yolk and all.

Egg substitutes can give you all the protein of real eggs, with less of the fat and cholesterol. Ingredients typically include egg whites, vegetable oil, skim milk powder, and/or tofu. But they also have additives—color, thickening agents, and sodium stearoyl lactylate. Some, such as Egg Beaters, have vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants added, too. Egg substitutes are pasteurized, which kills harmful bacteria such as salmonella. 
Bottom line: An option for people who want to reduce fat and cholesterol or for cooks worried about salmonella. But this is definitely not the real thing—nor does it taste like it. If you want an all-natural way to lose the fat, you’re better off substituting two egg whites for one whole egg.

Liquid egg whites are just that: egg whites that have been separated from the yolks. They’re marketed under a number of names, including AllWhites. They typically have no fat, cholesterol, carbs, or sugars and contain around 5 grams of protein per serving (usually about 3 tablespoons). But they don’t provide any other nutrients.
Bottom line: Yes, you could separate your own egg whites like Meryl Streep does in The Hours, but who wants to? And the packaged egg whites are pasteurized.

Eggs can go bad if you leave them out too long. (You’ll know because they smell funny.) But the biggest safety concern is salmonella enteritidis, which can cause serious stomach illness. The risk is pretty minimal: Only 1 egg in 20,000 is affected with the bacteria. Still, you’ll want to do what you can to avoid it. Here are some safety tips for the care and handling of eggs.

• Buy refrigerated eggs that are clean and uncracked. Check the sell-by date and look for the USDA grading shield on the box. Most stores sell USDA-grade A and AA eggs, which means they were checked for quality and size. The grade shield also displays a pack date, such as 365, which means the eggs were packed on December 31. Buy the freshest eggs possible. The older an egg is, the more likely it will crack, which is how bacteria gets in.

• Leave the eggs in the original carton and refrigerate immediately. Raw eggs are usually good three to five weeks from the day you get them home if you keep them cool. Hard-liners advise storing them on a shelf inside the refrigerator, not in the door. Boiled eggs can be safely refrigerated for a week.

• Wash your hands, equipment, and work surfaces with hot, soapy water before and after you come in contact with raw eggs.

• Do not eat raw or undercooked eggs, advises the USDA. Raw eggs are often called for in making hollandaise sauce, mayonnaise, ice cream, frostings, eggnog, Caesar and other salad dressings, Key lime pie, and tiramisu. Be sure the eggs you choose are pasteurized, or use a pasteurized liquid egg product.

• Aim for a final cooking temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit to kill salmonella. To make sure that soft-cooked egg dishes are safe, Marie Simmons, author of The Good Egg, recommends that the eggs be cooked at 140 degrees, which is a low boil, for 31¼2 minutes. At that point, she says, the yolk will be thick but not hard, and the white will no longer be transparent.

• Don’t leave hard-boiled eggs or egg dishes out of the fridge. They might spoil. Hard-cooked eggs used for Easter egg hunts, for instance, should be returned to the fridge within two hours