By Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN
I feel bad for eggs. There’s so much about them to love, yet many people fear them. For years, thinking eggs were a major cause of high cholesterol levels and increased risk of heart disease, health experts have recommended that egg consumption be limited.
In fact, for years I was one of those people who stigmatized eggs and limited my consumption to hard-boiled egg whites or an egg-white-only omelet —figuring the protein-rich egg white was all that was worth eating anyway. Boy was I wrong, and so were the experts who made these recommendations.
Some people are also apprehensive about buying and eating eggs because of what they have heard, read, or seen about how hens are raised. If you do choose to buy eggs, you may be confused by all the labels on the carton — “natural,” “cage-free,” “free-range,” and “vegetarian fed” are just some of them.
To help you cut through the clutter of misinformation and get to the truth about eggs, here are six facts about egg nutrition and labeling.
The Truth About Eggs
Fact #1: Eggs Are Nutritional Powerhouses
One large egg has 13 essential vitamins and minerals, 6 grams of protein, and all nine essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) – all for only 70 calories! Here are some of the standout nutrients found in eggs — especially the yolks — and what they can do for you:
- Choline: Found in the yolk, this nutrient plays an essential role in fetal and infant brain development and may be important for brain function in adults. Adequate choline during pregnancy also may prevent neural tube defects.
- Lutein and Zeaxanthin: Also found in the yolk, these two phytochemicals play a role in eye health — particularly in the prevention of cataracts and macular degeneration.
- Vitamin D: Known as the sunshine vitamin, this nutrient is found in only a few natural sources, one of which is the egg yolk. Vitamin D aids the absorption of calcium, making it essential for the health of your bones and teeth.
- Protein: Eggs are a good source of high-quality protein, with about 60% coming from the whites and about 40% from the yolks. Protein is satiating, which helps with appetite and blood sugar control, both of which are important for weight maintenance and diabetes prevention.
Fact #2: Eggs Can Be Part of a Heart-Healthy Diet
Most people are familiar with the old recommendation to limit dietary cholesterol to 300 mg/day, however, this limit was removed in the most recent 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Believe it or not, cholesterol is essential to our body and plays a special role in the formation of brain cells and certain hormones. What most people don’t realize is there’s a difference between dietary cholesterol — cholesterol found in food — and blood cholesterol — cholesterol in your bloodstream, most of which is made in the liver. The primary dietary culprit of increased blood cholesterol is saturated fat and trans fats, both of which should be limited.
The truth about eggs and cholesterol is proven in research that shows eggs, which are a source of dietary cholesterol, have little impact on blood cholesterol levels. For example, a study found in the American Heart Journal
found daily consumption of eggs or egg substitutes show no adverse effects on any cardiac risk factors. Even more so, the authors of the study said that excluding eggs could potentially lead to alternate choices high in starch and sugar, potentially associated with increased cardiovascular risk.
Fact #3: There Is No Nutritional Difference Between Cage-Free, Free-Range, and Conventional Eggs
There is no scientific data showing nutritional differences between these types of eggs. The differences are solely the environment in which the laying hens are raised.
- Conventional Eggs: Laid by hens living in cages with access to feed, water, and security. The cages serve as nesting space and protect the birds from the elements, disease, and predators.
- Free-Range Eggs: Laid by hens housed in a building, room or area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and the outdoors. The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. These hens may forage for wild plants and insects in addition to consuming their diet of grains.
- Cage-Free Eggs: Also known as free-roaming eggs, these are laid by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area in a barn or poultry house, which allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area.
Fact #4: There Is No Nutritional Difference Between Brown and White Eggs
Brown bread (ie. whole grain) is healthier than white bread, so brown eggs should be better than white, right? Wrong! The color of the shell is based on the type of hen that laid the egg and does not affect the quality or nutrition of the eggs. Brown eggs tend to be larger in size than white eggs and cost more to produce, hence the higher price tag.
Fact #5: All Eggs are Antibiotic-Free, Hormone-Free, Natural, and Non-GMO
As I mentioned in my post Chicken Myths & Truths
, the use of hormones in eggs is forbidden by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Whether or not it says so on the carton, you can rest assured that no hormones are given to egg laying hens.
Similarly, you need not fear antibiotics in eggs. The egg industry does not use antibiotics on a continuous basis; therefore, eggs are generally antibiotic-free. That said, there are occasions when antibiotics may be used for the health of hens (just like humans use antibiotics on occasion when they are sick). Hens who receive antibiotics rarely produce eggs, as their egg production is severely decreased due to illness, and if an egg is produced, it would be diverted from human consumption according to FDA regulations.
Seeing eggs labeled as natural and non-GMO? That’s another marketing tactic. According to the USDA, all shell eggs are natural and eggs are not a genetically modified food. Research confirms that any GM food in the hen feed is not passed into the egg itself.
Fact #6: Hens Fed Different Diets May Or May Not Produce Eggs With Slightly Different Nutrients
Some egg cartons may have claims like “omega-3 enriched” or “vegetarian fed” based on what the hens are fed. In general, commercially raised hens are fed a specially formulated feed consisting of corn, cottonseed, soybean meal, and/or sorghum. Poultry nutrition specialists carefully balance the feed to make sure it has the right amounts of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.
Some producers add flax, marine algae, or fish oils to increase the omega-3 fatty acid content of the yolk. Whereas most shell eggs have about 30 mg of omega-3 per egg, omega-3 enhanced eggs provide anywhere from 100 to 600 mg omega-3 per egg.
On the other hand, eggs touted as vegetarian fed—meaning they are produced by hens whose feed is free of animal by-products—are no different nutritionally than conventionally fed eggs. Some experts suggest that feeding hens a vegetarian diet may actually increase feed costs and reduce feed efficiency.
So, there you have it; six facts about egg nutrition and labeling that you may not have been aware of, and that show you the truth about eggs. Hopefully this helps clear up some of the confusion and you’re ready to get cooking.
To read more from Jessica, and find good chicken recipes, visit nutritioulicious.com/the-truth-about-eggs.
Jessica Levinson is part of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance's Digital Voices Council. To learn more about the program and bloggers who participate, click here.
All opinions expressed are the writer's own. Funded by one or more checkoff programs.