It's time to crack open the enigma of the egg, from allergies and nutrient values to colorization and caloric density. It's time to make smart decisions in the grocery aisle. Unless you want to raise your own brood, it's time to learn the rules of the henhouse!
Before you hit the store and start cracking, it's important to learn a number of important and egg-cellent terms. First, egg-laying hens can be classified as cage-free (free-range and free-run) or caged (battery). These terms do not refer to the nutritional content of the eggs, but rather to the conditions in which the chickens are raised. Unfortunately, the vast majority of eggs in the United States are laid by battery hens in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Only a small percentage of chickens are raised on the range.
These are crowded into cages with little room to move. Feed is placed in a trough at the front of the cage. Eggs that have been laid get funneled down a conveyor belt and then processed in a factory. Ninety-seven percent of U.S. eggs are laid from chickens housed in battery cages because it entails less expense, less manual labor, more automation, higher egg yields and more uniformity among the eggs.1
These are laid from hens given access to nesting boxes, open floor space, perches, and outdoor free runs. Free-range eggs are more expensive to produce because more effort is required to collect the eggs, which are more susceptible to spoilage and less likely to be uniform in size. Although free-range chickens have access to the outdoors, they rely on the barn for shelter and safety.
Free-run eggs come from hens permitted to roam freely in an enclosed facility, such as a barn. Free-run eggs are slightly cheaper than free-range eggs because the chickens are more tightly controlled.
In colder climates, such as Canada, hens can only be free range for part of the year; in winter they are crowded indoors. In Canada, there are little to no requirements regarding the size or conditions of an outdoor enclosure. When free-range chickens venture outside, biosecurity becomes an issue. Unlike free-run and caged hens, these hens ingest bugs and dirt and have increased exposure to diseases carried in wild bird droppings, such as Avian flu.
Free-range and free-run hens have nesting boxes where they lay their eggs. They also have freedom to roam around the barn, which means some hens will occasionally lay eggs on the ground. Ground eggs cannot go to market, which increases production costs.
These hens are raised without a cage. This does not imply the hens are permitted to move around freely, nor does it mean they are raised under particular conditions. While free-range and free-run hens are handled in a more humane fashion than caged hens, there is little to no oversight of cage-free claims. This means packing claims may not actually reflect the true conditions under which the hens are raised.
These nutritionally enhanced eggs provide more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E compared to regular eggs. An omega-3 egg contains approximately 320 mg of omega-3, whereas a regular egg contains approximately 63 mg of omega-3.2 Omega-3 eggs are produced by chickens fed with an all-natural, flax-based diet.
The type of omega-3 fatty acid found in omega-3 eggs is alpha-linolenic acid, which is found exclusively in the egg yolk. Yes, you have to eat the egg yolk of an omega-3 egg in order to reap these benefits.
An egg is deemed organic if the laying hen has access to the outdoors, is not raised in a cage, is only fed organic feed (free of animal by-products, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and GMOs), is not administered antibiotics (except during an infectious outbreak), and is not subjected to forced molting.3
Organic and free-range eggs are not synonymous. Free-range chickens can be fed non-organic feed, which may not be GMO-free. They can also be given antibiotics. If you want to purchase organic eggs, then look for labels that say both organic and free-range, not just free-range.
The color of an eggshell just depends upon the hen's breed. An eggshell's color has nothing to do with its quality, nutritional value, or flavor. That said, brown eggs are generally more expensive because the hens that lay them are larger and tend to eat more feed than the hens that lay white eggs.4
Egg allergies represent the second-most common food allergy in children (after cow's milk).5 The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America estimates that most children outgrow an egg allergy by 5 years of age.6
Egg whites tend to cause more severe allergies than egg yolks, especially if the egg white is raw or poorly cooked. It is possible to be allergic to the egg yolk and not the egg white, and vice versa. It is also possible to be allergic to individual proteins in both the egg yolk and egg white.7
If you have a severe egg allergy, avoid all egg protein and carry an EpiPen at all times. Flu vaccines are typically made using chicken embryo, which means egg-allergic individuals may react to egg proteins in vaccines.7
Notice a lot of talk about hens, and not much about roosters? In most large-scale egg operations, newly hatched chicks are sexed and separated. The rooster chicks, which do not lay eggs and are not "engineered" for meat, are suffocated, gassed, or ground in machines.
If you have a mild egg allergy, then small traces of egg in cooked goods can typically be eaten. To reintroduce eggs into your diet, start with small amounts in baking. If you do not react, then try a small piece of hard-boiled egg yolk. You can progress to hard-boiled egg white, and then eventually eat something like an omelet.
Egg whites can provoke a non-allergic response in some people. Symptoms may include abdominal pain, gas, bloating and diarrhea. Often, people with egg white intolerance can tolerate small quantities of egg-whites, especially if they are well-cooked (as in cakes and baked goods).
People who are allergic to eggs are typically not allergic to chickens.
You can purchase egg-free egg replacer in health food stores, which can be used in recipes which call for eggs. It generally works best for binding or leavening. It does not work well for desserts calling for high egg content.
For baking (consistency):
1/2 cup of applesauce = 1 egg
1 tbsp flaxseed + 3 tbsp water = 1 egg
- Egg Allergy. Food Allergy Initiative. 2008. Retrieved 12-11-2008.
- Egg Allergy Facts Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America