Eggs have gotten a bad rap because they are high in cholesterol. A survey of healthy adults conducted by the Egg Nutrition Center showed that nearly one out of four Americans avoid eggs for fear of dietary cholesterol, even though 30 years of research have never linked egg consumption to heart disease.
Eggs are a nutritious, convenient and inexpensive food. When learning nutrition in graduate school, I was taught that eggs are the perfect protein and a naturally nutrient-dense food, which means they have a high proportion of nutrients to calories. Each egg packs 6 grams of protein, 318 IUs of vitamin A, 4.5 grams of fat (mostly polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, with only 1.5 grams of saturated fat) and 75 calories. Eggs are also a significant source of vitamins E, D (one of the few foods that naturally contain D), B6 and B12, as well as folate, riboflavin, iron, phosphorous, zinc, choline, zeaxanthin and lutein. Many of the nutrients are found in the yolk, and egg whites are considered an ideal protein because they contain all of the essential amino acids in proper proportion.
A 2007 study of 9,500 people reported in Medical Science Monitor showed that eating one or more eggs a day did not increase the risk of heart disease or stroke among healthy adults, and that eating eggs may be associated with a decrease in blood pressure. Also in 2007, researchers showed that egg consumption contributed less than 1 percent of the risks for heart disease when other risk factors were taken into account. The researchers concluded that the broad recommendations to limit egg consumption may be misguided considering eggs' nutritional benefits.
Not only have decades of research shown no association between egg intake and heart-disease risk, eggs are an excellent source of choline, which helps break down homocysteine, an amino acid that may be associated with an increased risk of heart disease.
Eggs with extra omega-3 fatty acids are currently produced by several companies. Some incorporate the fish's source of DHA, a tiny single-cell algae, into the hen's feed. DHA is critical for the development and function of the brain and eyes, and helps to manage communication among brain cells. DHA also helps keep the heart and blood vessels running smoothly by regulating the fat profile and supporting natural heartbeat.
There are many claims on egg cartons, but what do they mean? First, egg grades, provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are associated with the firmness of the whites. For example, AA eggs hold their shape in the pan better than Grade A.
High-quality protein helps build muscle strength and prevents muscle loss. Consuming eggs after exercise is a great way to get the most benefits from exercise by encouraging muscle-tissue repair and growth.
Andrea Platzman is a dietician and nutritionist based in New York City.
Cracking egg terms at the grocery
Cage-free: The chickens were not kept in cages and had continuous access to food and water but weren't necessarily outdoors.
Free-range: In addition to cage-free standards, these birds have continuous access to the outdoors, but there are no standards of what that area is.
Pasture-raised: Hens got some of their nutrition from greens and bugs. Some studies have found that pasture-raised eggs have more nutrients, like omega-3 fatty acids, beta carotene and vitamins A and E, and less saturated fat and cholesterol.
Organic: Any product with the USDA organic emblem must meet the standards of the agriculture department's National Organic Program. Birds must be kept cage-free with outdoor access. They cannot be given antibiotics, and their food must be free from animal byproducts and made from crops grown without chemical pesticides, fertilizers, irradiation, genetic engineering or sewage sludge.
Vegetarian-fed: Hens are raised on all-vegetarian feed.
No hormones: This term is meaningless since the FDA has not approved any hormone products for egg production.
No antibiotics: The FDA, which is responsible for overseeing antibiotic use in poultry, does not allow routine use of antibiotics but does not define or regulate the term "no antibiotics." The only way this claim is verified is if the eggs are USDA-graded.
Natural, naturally raised: Eggs in the shell are not a processed food, so this term means whatever the producers want it to mean.
Fertile: The term is unregulated but implies the eggs came from hens that were likely to have been fertilized because they were uncaged and raised near a rooster. Some cultures consider fertile eggs a delicacy.
Omega-3 enriched: The hen's diet includes good sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as flaxseed or algae. Unless the eggs claim to contain higher levels of DHA, the omega-3s are probably primarily in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Pasteurized: This term is regulated by the FDA and refers to eggs heated to temperatures just below the coagulation point to destroy pathogens. These eggs are a good choice for recipes that call for raw eggs.