Editor’s note: Shopping for eggs, once so simple, is now bewildering. This week Kelly Myers tackles egg-carton labels and what they really mean, plus offers a frittata recipe. Food editor Carrie Floyd confesses her confusion over egg buying. And next week Jes Burns will report on how to get the best eggs you’ll ever taste, by keeping your own chickens.
Eggs are just about perfect. We eat them raw and cooked, whole and separated, whipped and baked and fried. We eat them for their protein, folic acid, polyunsaturated fat, and vitamins. We eat them, quite simply, because we love them.
Eggs are little packages of goodness. And they are cheap. Or used to be, before eggs stopped being “eggs” and became “cage free,” “organic,” “antibiotic free,” “fed a vegetarian diet,” and the like. The egg is no longer an egg, but a choice. And eating eggs is no longer just about taste or health, but about food purity and animal rights as well.
I work as a chef. I cook with eggs every day. But in the grocery store I, too, pause at the egg case in frustration. What do all the labels really mean? Which eggs should I buy, and for which reasons?
Conventional egg production, otherwise known as the battery system, crams as many as six chickens into a cage at a time, leaving each bird with less personal space than a sheet of ordinary notebook paper. Critics say the battery system causes the spread of disease, requires the painful debeaking of birds, and restricts natural bird behaviors, such as dusting or nesting.
I didn’t want to buy eggs from these birds, but wasn’t sure how to figure out which eggs came from which birds. So, after talking to farmers, poultry scientists, and a physician, I put together the following guide to egg-carton terminology.
Brown eggs come from chickens with brown feathers, and white eggs come from chickens with white feathers. The color of the shell indicates nothing about the egg’s nutritional profile, taste, or the manner in which the laying hen was raised.
“Natural” sounds swell, but the label is unregulated and lacks meaning.
This label indicates that no animal by-products, such as beef tallow or chicken feathers, are in the chickens’ feed. And “vegetarian” sure sounds healthy. But chickens are natural omnivores who like to spend time outside digging for protein in the form of insects and worms, so the “vegetarian” label is really just another way of saying that the hens can’t go outside.
Still, an all-vegetarian diet is nutritionally possible for chickens with the addition of synthetic vitamin B-12.
Omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid considered crucial by some for developing brains and preventing heart disease and depression. Farmers boost the omega-3 content of their hens’ eggs by adding ground flaxseed, algae, or even fish oil to the birds’ feed.
An omega-3 egg contains about 200 to 300 milligrams of omega-3s. But a three-ounce portion of salmon will give you about 1,000 milligrams, nearly three times that of the enriched egg.
The FDA banned the use of hormones — most notably diethylstilbestrol, or DES — in poultry in 1959, after they not only caused tragic health problems in consumers but also failed to stimulate growth in chickens. “Hormone free” is a misleading bit of marketing that suggests other egg producers are illegally dosing their birds.
Regular dosing of livestock, including poultry, can encourage the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can, in turn, sicken humans. (NPR covered this story back in 2001.) Unfortunately, the term “antibiotic free” is unregulated and impossible to verify. And it’s difficult to pinpoint the extent of the egg industry’s reliance on antibiotics to preserve poultry health.
Robert Spiller, an animal-science professor at California State Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, California, owned commercial egg flocks for more than 20 years. He says that the expense of antibiotics (the entire flock, not just a lone sick bird, must be medicated) means that they’re rarely used on laying hens. “It would have to be an extreme health situation,” he says.
Instead of antibiotics, Spiller says, egg producers employ biosecurity measures (limiting rodents as well as human visitors), vaccinations, and genetic selection for disease resistance to keep birds healthy. Besides, he adds, antibiotics used on humans (such as tetracyclines) are banned for use on laying hens.
Yet 64 egg producers in the United States own flocks of at least a million birds. With chickens crowded in battery cages, it’s hard to imagine how producers control for disease without some antibiotic use.
“The concern about antibiotic residue is that we don’t know what it does when it gets in our system,” says Monica Myklebust, an assistant professor at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
“Theoretically, taking in these antibiotics can alter our system,” she says. “I like to have people think about why are they using these antibiotics in the first place. The more stressful (the chickens’) conditions are, the more likely they’ll get sick.”
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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