How Eggs Can Improve Your Health

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How Eggs Can Improve Your Health

Although many new studies support what your grandparents knew, there is still a major misconception and a lot of misinformation promoted by the media that you must avoid foods like eggs and saturated fat to protect your heart. While it's true that fats from animal sources contain cholesterol, this is not necessarily a health hazard.

Your body actually requires cholesterol, and artificially driving your cholesterol levels down is nearly always doing far more harm than good. Every cell in your body needs cholesterol. Cholesterol is a health-promoting substance. It is a critical component of cell membranes, the precursor to all steroid hormones, a precursor to vitamin D, and the limiting factor that brain cells need to make connections with one another called synapses, making it essential to learning and memory (1). 

Numerous studies support the conclusion that eggs have virtually nothing to do with raising your cholesterol anyway. For instance, research published in the International Journal of Cardiology showed that, in healthy adults, eating eggs daily did not produce a negative effect on endothelial function, an aggregate measure of cardiac risk, nor did it increase cholesterol levels (2). Another study from the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people who eat four whole eggs per week had lower cholesterol than people who ate just one egg per week (3). Thus prevalence of the idea that eggs, as a source of saturated fats, are unhealthy and promote heart disease is a complete myth. While it's true that fats from animal sources contain cholesterol, it is also true that both your body and brain desperately need saturated fats and cholesterol to function properly.

The evidence clearly shows that eggs are one of the most healthful foods you can eat, and can actually help prevent disease, including heart disease. For example, one 2009 study discovered that the proteins in cooked eggs are converted by gastrointestinal enzymes, producing peptides that act as ACE inhibitors (common prescription medications for lowering blood pressure)(4). This certainly flies in the face of 'conventional wisdom,' and the latest findings support the stance that eggs are in fact part of a heart-healthy diet.

The Egg — a Great Source of Health Promoting Antioxidants & Neurotransmitters
In the featured study, the researchers examined the nutrient content of egg yolks from hens fed primarily wheat or corn. They determined that the yolks from these conventional chickens contain two amino acids with potent antioxidant properties, which is important for the prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer: tryptophan and tyrosine. The amino acid tryptophan is also an important precursor to the brain chemical serotonin, which helps regulate your mood, and tyrosine synthesizes two key neurotransmitters, dopamine and norepinephrine, which promote alertness and mental activity. Thus, the potential health benefits of eggs certainly go far beyond heart health and help to create both mental and emotional health.

 As many of you already know, the nutrient content of organic, pastured eggs is far superior to conventional eggs. What's really interesting is that conventional eggs, despite their inferior nutritional content, were still found to be such a potent source of heart healthy antioxidants!  The analysis showed that two raw egg yolks have antioxidant properties equivalent to half a serving of cranberries (25 grams), and almost twice as many as an apple(5). Egg yolks are also a rich source of the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which belong to the class of carotenoids known as xanthophylls. These two are powerful prevention elements of age-related macular degeneration; the most common cause of blindness.

Not All Eggs are Created Equal
Eggs are also an incredible source of high-quality protein and fat, nutrients that many of us are deficient in, and I believe eggs are a nearly ideal fuel source. However, there are two issues that must be considered when discussing the nutritional benefits of eggs: where the egg comes from and how it is cooked.

Cage-free.  Organic.  All natural.  Free-range. You see these terms on egg cartons all the time, some even using all four at once! But what do they mean? Does “free range” mean access to a chicken’s natural diet? Let’s examine each nebulous term for what it’s worth.

Free Range
As applied to chicken eggs, this term is essentially meaningless. On June 17, 2010, the Access to Pasture Rule went into effect for all certified organic livestock. This rule made it illegal to confine an animal indoors except during medical treatment, shipping or to protect soil and water. The rule does not specify, however, what type of outdoor area the animal has access to -- or if it even goes outside. While it's better than life in a cage, it's no assurance that the animal has room or opportunity to engage in natural behaviors. Government only loosely regulates the definition of “free range,” and egg producers have jumped at the opportunity to print some new labels and charge a couple extra bucks in return for giving their hens occasional access to a tiny patch of dirt. According to the Department of Agriculture, egg “producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the Outside”. In other words, there needs to be a door to the chicken cage, and it needs to be open part of the time, but the chickens can still eat substandard food and live in cramped conditions. A “range” can range from being a full-fledged pasture (not likely) to a 10 x 10 patch of manure and dirt (more likely). Chances are most free range chickens rarely even venture outside. Why would they? Their food is usually inside.

Cage Free
Even more meaningless than “free range,” this term has no legal definition. Technically, cage free hens don’t live in stifling metal cages; instead, they might still live in stifling overcrowded henhouses! Some cage free hens’ lives aren’t much qualitatively better than those who live in cages and most still aren’t getting any access to the outdoors, but they’re generally raised with better food and better treatment.

All Natural
This is the most useless, all-encompassing term for anything. All produce is natural. These eggs weren’t created in a lab by a team of white coats. Even the most steroid-pumped, antibiotic-immersed hens produce “natural” eggs the way nature intended: by laying them. “All natural” is just a subtly disingenuous term used to conjure up images of hens happily pecking away at seeds and bounding through pastures, only to return home for the nightly egg-laying. It’s a feel-good phrase that distracts consumers from the fact that most eggs are produced in appalling, wholly unnatural conditions. Feel free to eat all natural eggs, but don’t be fooled into thinking they’re of any particular improvement in quality.

Chickens that lay your organic eggs should never receive growth hormones or antibiotics, as this is prohibited by the USDA.  However, some producers frequently use antibiotics to promote growth and feed efficiency, as well as prevent the spread of disease throughout the flock (6). Traces of the antibiotics from your food remain in your body, but when you become ill, there's not enough antibiotic to kill the infection. Instead, the pathogen that runs into the antibiotic traces develops a resistance to that particular drug. So the next time you catch that bug, your prescription may not work. Over time, this leads to strains of drug-resistant pathogens that are very difficult to treat.  An egg is considered organic if the chicken was only fed organic food, which means it will not have accumulated high levels of pesticides from the grains (mostly GM corn) fed to typical chickens.  Organic eggs are better than your average mass-produced egg, but your best bet is still to find a truly pasture-raised egg.

What about Omega-3 Eggs?
According to the latest research, I would strongly encourage you to AVOID ALL omega-3 eggs, as they are some of the least healthy for you. These eggs typically come from chickens that are fed poor-quality sources of omega-3 fats that are already oxidized (7). Also, omega-3 eggs perish much faster than non-omega-3 eggs.

Locally Produced Pastured-Raised Eggs
Testing has confirmed that true free-range pasture-raised eggs are far more nutritious than commercially raised eggs. In a 2007 egg-testing project, Mother Earth News compared the official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs with eggs from hens raised on pasture and found that the latter typically contains: 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, and 7 times more beta carotene. The dramatically superior nutrient levels are most likely the result of the differences in diet between free ranging, pastured hens and commercially farmed hens.

How to Find Fresh Pasture-Raised Organic Eggs
The key to getting high quality eggs is to buy them locally, either from an organic farm or farmers market.  Fortunately, finding organic eggs locally is far easier than finding raw milk as virtually every rural area has individuals with chickens.   Farmers markets are a great way to meet the people who produce your food. With face-to-face contact, you can get your questions answered and know exactly what you're buying. Many farms also allow customers to visit and take a tour.

Should You Refrigerate Your Eggs?
Before we get into the issue of eating raw versus cooked eggs, let's review the ideal storage method for your eggs. Contrary to popular belief, fresh pastured eggs that have an intact cuticle (shell) do not require refrigeration, as long as you are going to consume them within a relatively short period of time. This is well known in many other countries, including parts of Europe, and many organic farmers will not refrigerate their eggs. In the U.S., refrigeration of eggs became the cultural norm when mass production caused eggs to travel long distances and sit in storage for weeks to months before arriving at your local supermarket. Additionally, the general lack of cleanliness of factory farms increases the likelihood that your eggs have come into contact with pathogens, amplifying the need for both disinfection and refrigeration.

 So, if your eggs are fresh from the organic farm, with intact cuticles, and will be consumed within a few days, you can simply leave them on the counter or in a cool cupboard. The shelf life for an unrefrigerated egg is around 7 to 10 days. When refrigerated, they'll stay fresh for 30-45 days. Keep this in mind when purchasing eggs from your grocery store, as by the time they hit the shelf, they may already be three weeks old, or older. USDA certified eggs will have a pack date and a sell-by date on the carton, so be sure to check the label.

How to Eat Your Eggs for Maximum Health Benefits
The second issue is that cooking destroys many of these nutrients; so ideally, you’ll want to consume your eggs raw (but ONLY if they’re pastured organic, as conventionally-raised eggs are far more likely to be contaminated with disease-causing bacteria such as salmonella).The research also illustrates just how destructive cooking is. The antioxidant properties were reduced by about 50 percent when the eggs were fried or boiled, followed by microwaving, which resulted in an even greater reduction (5). Quite a few people are allergic to eggs, but evidence suggests that the allergy could be to only cooked eggs. When you heat the egg, the protein changes its chemical shape, and this type of distortion can easily lead to allergies. When consumed in their raw state, the incidence of egg allergy virtually disappears.

This distortion may be further magnified depending on the manner in which it's cooked. Microwaves heat food by causing water molecules in it to resonate at very high frequencies and eventually turn to steam, which heats your food. But it also changes your food's chemical structure in ways that regular cooking does not (7). The results in the featured study confirms this as raw egg yolk lost about half of its antioxidant potential when boiled, fried, or worse, microwaved.

Remember that most of the nutrition in an egg is in the yolk, not the white which is merely protein and many have a texture problem when eating them raw. The yolk on the other hand is loaded with nutrients, like bioflavonoids, brain fats like phosphatidyl choline, powerful antioxidants and sulfur.  If you choose not to eat your eggs raw, poached or soft-boiled is your next best option. Aside from microwaving, scrambling your eggs is one of the worst ways to cook them as it oxidizes the cholesterol in the egg yolk, which may in fact harm your health.

What about the Risk of Salmonella?
The CDC and other public health organizations advise you to thoroughly cook your eggs to lower your risk of salmonella, but as long as they're pastured and organic, eating your eggs raw is actually the best in terms of your health. The salmonella risk is primarily heightened when the hens are raised in unsanitary conditions, which is extremely rare for small organic farms where the chickens are raised in clean, spacious coops, have access to sunlight, and forage for their natural food. The salmonella risk can be high in conventional eggs, however, which is why I advise against eating conventional eggs raw. One study by the British government found that 23 percent of farms with caged hens tested positive for salmonella, compared to just over 4 percent in organic flocks and 6.5 percent in free-range flocks (10).

2. International Journal of Cardiology March 10, 2005; Volume 99, Issue 1, Pages 65-70
3. Murray, Michael, N.D. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York: Altria Books, 2005.
4. Science Daily July 6, 2011
5. Food Chemistry November 1, 2011; 129(1): 155-161
6. United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Marketing Service: National Organic Program: Organic Production and Handling Standards
7. Risk Analysis April 2002 22(2):203-18)
8. "Federal Register"; National Organic Program: Access to Pasture (Livestock); Feb. 17, 2010
9. U.S. Food and Drug Administration; The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-producing Animals; June 2010
10. Live Science August 27, 2010