Stroll down the egg aisle, and you’re likely to be left scratching your head. Why are there so many types? What do these labels mean? Is one better for baking versus whipping up a frittata? Should I skip the dozen and opt for a carton of egg whites? Do they all taste the same? How can I get the best bang for my breakfast sandwich buck? We hear you. Fear not. We’re breaking down how to buy the best eggs, what egg labels actually mean, and where marketing becomes deceptive. Based on health content and value, we’ll uncover which eggs are worth the splurge. Although egg prices run the gamut, they can easily be a part of a nourishing diet while eating on a budget. Let’s get cracking.
Image above of Spring Rice Salad by Suruchi Avasthi.
Are eggs healthy?
Let’s start here. Now, everyone is going to have a different opinion and perspective on this. Scroll down the Google rabbit hole and you’ll read that eggs are bad for cholesterol, it’s only safe to eat 1-2 eggs per day, they cause stomach woes, etc. In general, eggs are a healthy, nutrient-rich, and affordable food. But, what about cholesterol?
Research shows that eggs actually increase HDL (good) cholesterol and modify the shape and size of LDL (bad) cholesterol. In fact, in a study with over 170,000 people in 50 countries found no significant associations between egg intake and cholesterol levels, death rates, or major cardiovascular disease events. It also found no significant link between how many eggs someone ate and their cholesterol levels!
Before making changes to your diet, discuss your egg consumption with your healthcare provider.
Health Benefits of Eggs
They’re a dime a dozen.
- Eggs are a complete source of protein. One egg has approximately six grams of protein, with all nine essential amino acids—the building blocks of protein. Scrambled, hard boiled, whipped into a quiche, or added to a salad, they’re a convenient source of satiating protein.
- They’re nutrient-dense. Meaning, eggs have more nutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.) per calorie than most other foods. Along with protein, you’ll get healthy fats, vitamin B12, choline, selenium, and more. Oh, and don’t just eat the egg white! The egg yolk is rich in all the good stuff.
- They’re heart-healthy. As mentioned, people who eat more of them don’t seem to raise their chances of heart disease. Even people with pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes were just as heart- healthy after a high-egg diet designed for weight loss.
- Eggs support eye health. Certain antioxidants help prevent certain eye diseases, like cataracts and age-related macular degeneration. Green, leafy vegetables—like spinach and kale have them, too— but eggs are an even better source. Reason being, the yolk’s fat makes it easier for your body to use the nutrients.
- They help sharpen your brain (and if you’re pregnant or nursing, your growing baby’s brain!). Eggs contain choline, which helps your brain’s nerve cells communicate with each other. Choline is also a crucial nutrient for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
How To Break Down Different Types Of Eggs
When it comes to selecting eggs, there are three components to consider: color, label, and grade.
What determines egg color?
Simply put, egg color is determined by the genetics of the hens. That’s all there is to it. So, does the health value or flavor of an egg vary based on its shell color? No. Their breed will ultimately tell you the color of her eggs. Most often, white hens lay white eggs, and brown hens lay brown eggs. Eggs with deposited pigments—think: a blue hue—are a result of the hen’s oviduct (where the shell is formed). Surprisingly, all eggs start out white! Then, their shell transforms colors. At any rate, the egg’s shell color has no major bearing on nutritional content or taste.
How To Decipher Egg Labels
Buckle up—there are just as many carton labels as there are nutrients in eggs.
These are your standard eggs. These often have no special label. This type of egg comes from chickens raised in large, commercial farms. Their wings and beaks are often clipped and they’re kept in small cages on top of one another. Due to these living conditions—and the fact that they come from commercial farms—these eggs are the most affordable for those with smaller budgets. However, these are the least nutritionally-dense and most inhumane, unfortunately.
Truthfully, there’s very little difference between conventional eggs and cage-free eggs. The chickens that lay cage-free eggs still get their beaks and wings clipped and live in close quarters with minimal sunlight and no guaranteed access to the outdoors. The only major difference is that—as the label suggests—these chickens aren’t raised in cages.
When you think of free-range, do you envision chickens roaming in grassy fields all day? If so, think again. Yes, this label does guarantee that chickens have some access to the outdoors. But typically, it’s only for a small portion of their lives. Unfortunately, free-range is a blanket term. The amount of time (and quantity of space outdoors) can vary. You may also see these labeled as antibiotic-free, but keep in mind that few hens are ever actually injected with antibiotics.
Also labeled as “organic vegetarian-fed,” certified organic eggs are produced via chickens fed a strictly organic and vegetarian diet. The vegetarian-fed label may have a certain appeal, but it’s not necessarily adding any more nutrients to the egg, itself. At any rate, organic eggs are a significant step up (nutritionally and for the planet) from conventional eggs.
When it comes to the gold standard, think pasture-raised (and even better, regenerative organic pasture-raised). These are the healthiest eggs with the best living conditions for hens. These eggs come straight from chickens raised on a pasture, which typically indicates that they could freely roam full access to sunlight. These chickens eat an organic diet, complete with bugs, worms, and grasses. In turn, their yolks are more nutritious, including twice as many omega-3 fatty acids, and a deeper orange color. Look for Vital Farms and New Barn at your grocery store!
How are eggs graded?
In terms of classifying eggs by structure and consistency, they get a grade. In the United States, consumer grades for eggs are either AA, A, or B. Grade AA eggs should have a thick, firm egg white and a clear anchor between the egg and the yolk. The yolk should be round and high. These eggs are ideal for all kinds of cooking, but especially for poaching and frying. Eggs of this grade are full and regularly shaped.
Grade A are very similar to AA—however, the whites may be slightly less firm and thick. Same as AA, they can be used in a variety of recipes, including baked goods. Grade B eggs have a thin, flat yolk. They’re not often sold at the grocery store. Rather, they’re included in frozen or freeze-dried egg products.
In summary, the best eggs are pasture-raised organic, USDA AA or A, and stamped with the Certified Humane or Animal Welfare Approval seal.
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