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An Eggs-ploration!

A Love Affair

I love eggs. I love them poached, fried, hard boiled, soft boiled, over easy, scrambled, as an omelet or quiche...pretty much any way they can be made. Never have I felt such an affinity with a fictional character as when Maggie, the main character in Runaway Bride, determined after some experimenting that she loved Eggs Benedict. (Yes! Isn't that the BEST?!?)

But Are Eggs Healthy? In an "eggshell," yes.

For the more detailed explanation, it is true that egg yolks are high in cholesterol—200 mg in one large yolk. However, the science around cholesterol and its impact on heart health has been evolving over time. Dietary cholesterol (the kind that comes from food) and blood cholesterol (the stuff that can kill you) are not the same thing and are not as directly related as researchers once believed.

Blood cholesterol is the byproduct of the mix of fats and carbohydrates in a person's diet. Take Eggs Benedict as an example. The one ingredient in that recipe that is the least damaging in terms of blood cholesterol is the egg. The English muffin, ham, and Hollandaise sauce are what contribute to making Eggs Benedict a "heart attack on a plate." Aside from the fact that the 5 mg of fat found in eggs is all unsaturated fat, eggs are also good sources of protein, choline (an essential nutrient), vitamins B7 and A, and antioxidants. As is true of all things, moderation is crucial. Two to three eggs every day is probably more than the average person needs, but one a day or several a few times a week? Enjoy!

What is not healthy about eggs, is if you eat them raw or undercooked due to the risk of salmonella, a foodborne bacteria. Salmonella lives in the GI tract, causing cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. In the elderly or immunocompromised, it can be fatal.

  • Eggs are good for another four (4) weeks after the "sell-by" date. Check package dates to get the freshest available.

  • Check for cracked or broken egg shells before purchasing. Discard any discovered after purchase.

  • Keep refrigerated. Eggs can be kept at room temperature for up to two hours.

  • Cook egg dishes (e.g. quiche) to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

  • Do not eat raw eggs; avoid undercooked eggs. Even poached or over-easy eggs should have solid whites.

  • If raw cookie dough or Royal icing is your jam, use pasteurized eggs only.

Cage-free, Free Range, Pasture-Raised

The differences between "supermarket" eggs, cage-free eggs, free-range eggs, and pasture-raised eggs have nothing to do with egg quality or safety. It's all about how the hens are treated and animal welfare.

The typical supermarket or "cage" eggs come from hens who are kept in cages for the entirety of their productive life. The benefits for egg farmers are the hens can be more closely monitored for disease, are safe from predators, and parasites can be controlled. The downsides are all on the birds who cannot engage in any normal behaviors and can suffer from injuries to their claws and wings. It's not a good life and unethical egg farmers can keep hens in some pretty horrific conditions.

Cage-free hens have essentially the same life as caged hens except they're not kept in cages. While the hens can move about horizontally and vertically and have more opportunity to engage in normal behaviors, they don't necessarily have much access to outdoor spaces. Industry regulations require hens to have a minimum of 1 square foot of space, which isn't much, even for a chicken.

Free-range hens are not kept in cages and have access to outdoor space, which offers greater opportunities for normal behaviors. On the other hand, regulations have not yet been standardized. Depending on the agency, free-range hens may have access to a minimum of 1.23 square feet of floor space and a maximum of 21.8 square feet of outdoor space. There are also no regulations on what that outdoor space should look like. Hanging out in a dirt yard is still a better deal than being locked in a cage for life, but it doesn't help with access to a more nutritional or natural diet.

Pasture-raised hens are, by far, the most ethical manner of raising hens and producing eggs. Pastured hens have continuous access to outdoor space, which must be covered with grass or vegetation. How many birds can be kept per square foot again varies depending on whose guidelines the farmer is following. However, the minimum requirements are still larger than any other option. Additionally, pasture-raised eggs from hens raised in sunshine and on a diet of fresh greens are significantly more nutritious, with higher amounts of beta carotene, vitamins A, E, and D, and omega-3 fatty acids.

The preference at Mama Donna's is to use locally sourced, free-range or pasture-raised eggs; however, what we are able to use all comes down to cost. Free-range eggs can cost, on average, $6.00–$7.00 per dozen. Organic, pasture-raised eggs can cost even more. The hope is that as interest in sustainability and ethical food farming practices grows, prices will eventually be on par with the average supermarket eggs, but only time will tell.

Organic Eggs

Organic labeling has very little to do with how the hens are housed and raised. It is true that to earn the "organic" certification from the USDA hens must be "cage-free;" however, as just noted, cage-free hens might have a life that's only marginally better than caged hens. The bulk of the organic certification relates to what the hens are eating. For an egg to be certified organic, the hens cannot be given any foods derived from animal byproducts. Feed cannot be exposed to pesticides, must be non-GMO, and free of any chemicals or additives. The hens cannot receive antibiotics unless absolutely necessary. This does improve the end product in terms of nutritional health, but even organic eggs can be produced in inhumane and unethical conditions.

As with every ingredient discussed so far, the best strategy is to do a little bit of research to learn more about the supplier. Know where your food is coming from. If you can afford pasture-raised eggs, they're a worthy option. If you cannot afford them, investing some time to support humane and ethical food farming practices is a worthy practice. You are the market, and producers will make what the market demands, so demand better for yourself and your family.

~Mama Donna

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