Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Eggs-The Truth Behind the Label


There seems to be a never-ending list of the kind of eggs you can now buy at the grocery store.

Even designer eggs that promise extra health benefits are marketed heavily for the health conscious consumer. But are those labels what they’re cracked up to be?



Cage Free Eggs

Most egg laying chickens in this country are maintained in cages. But if you ask me, 24-7 confinement isn’t the life a chicken was meant to have. Since some shoppers are opposed to this egg production method, companies have latched onto calling their eggs “cage-free.” “Cage-free” does not mean that the birds are raised outdoors or that they are running free. Typically the birds are maintained on the floor of a poultry house or barn. You’ve probably seen the pictures of an overcrowded poultry floor before. I suppose it’s better than a cage. They may or may not have access to outdoor pens.

Free-Range Eggs

To range birds means to allow them to graze and roam outdoors. Range eggs are not necessarily produced by hens that are always kept outdoors. A range egg rancher may employ a combination of barn and outdoor pens. The hens can choose to go outdoors in the daytime but typically are kept inside at night for protection from the elements and from predators. They are many opinions as to how much land per bird should be used to constitute “range.” There is currently no consensus on this point in terms of market classification. But at least they’re getting closer to the way homeowners raise backyard chickens.

Organic Eggs

The United State Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program has established regulations for organic food production. Hens producing eggs that are to be labeled “organic” must receive feed made from certified organic ingredients and must be free to range outdoors. At first glance, it seems organic eggs are the best bet to be guilt free over how the chickens are raised.

Lower Cholesterol Eggs

There doesn’t seem to be breeds or strains of chickens that lay eggs of superior nutritional value and significantly lower cholesterol than other chickens. Geneticists have tried to develop a strain of egg layers that would produce lower-cholesterol eggs, but their efforts at genetic manipulation have proved futile. Chickens, like humans, need cholesterol for their normal development. Hens that producer lower-cholesterol eggs would be unable to reproduce: the amount of cholesterol in their eggs would not be sufficient for development of a viable chick.

Animal nutritionists have been able to alter the diet of laying hens so that their eggs do contain less cholesterol than the standard egg. By definition from the US Food and Drug Administration, that means an egg must have 25% less cholesterol or fat in order to claim “less” or “reduced” on their product.

The producers achieve these reductions in fat and cholesterol by selecting eggs from hens of certain ages that are fed on special diets. No drugs, hormones, antibiotics or iodine derivatives are involved.

Sounds like it’s just easier to eat less eggs than put chickens through a diet regimen.

Eggs Higher in Vitamin E

By feeding hens on diets high in vitamin E, egg producers can produce eggs that contain significantly more vitamin E than ordinary eggs. Given its benefits, including its role as an antioxidant, some people may be interested in foods containing higher levels of vitamin E.

Of course, you could get your vitamin E from almonds and swiss chard to avoid paying the extra price for fancy eggs.

Omega-3 Eggs

Egg producers can change the amount and type of fatty acids in yolks by feeding hens diets on varying amounts and types of fat. When flax seed, fish oil, or other feed ingredients high in omega-3 fatty acids are fed to hens, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids accumulate in their eggs’ yolks. Consumption of these fatty acids has been associated with normal brain and retinal development. Omega-3 fatty acids may also improve immune responses. Because of the benefits associated with eating foods that contain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, some egg production companies now market eggs with a higher content of these compounds.

Call me cynical, but I imagine there’s nothing better than eggs from backyard chickens. Chickens that eat a diet of greens and insects have more Omega-3 fatty acids in their eggs than chickens fed on soybeans and corn. If you can, skip the grocery store, and raise your own laying hens. It’s easier said than done, but much more rewarding. 

Information from University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources

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