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Articles May 2011 Issue

Eggs Get a Nutrition Makeover—But Are They Really “Healthy”?

America’s farmers have built a better egg—and they’re hoping the payoff isn’t just chicken feed. According to new research from the US Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service, today’s eggs have less cholesterol and more vitamin D than they did just a few years ago.

To update nutritional data last calculated in 2002, the USDA sent samples of large eggs from 12 locations nationwide to a laboratory for testing. The eggs averaged 186 milligrams of dietary cholesterol, down 14% from 212 milligrams in 2002. And a typical large egg, yolk plus white, now delivers about 41 IU of vitamin D—up 64% from the last measurement of just 18 IU.

The nutritional improvements are due to a combination of chicken breeding and changes in the hens’ diets, according to the American Egg Board. In particular, farmers have begun giving egg-laying hens feed enriched with vitamin D.

That vitamin D boost is important, according to the egg-industry group, because there are few natural food sources of the “sunshine vitamin.” It’s important to note, however, that 41 IU represents only 7% of the official daily recommendation of 600 IU of vitamin D.

As for cholesterol, keep in mind that cholesterol from food is not the leading culprit in unhealthy blood-cholesterol levels. It’s more important to limit saturated fat and trans fat; eggs are not a major source of either type of fat in the diet. All of the cholesterol and saturated fat in an egg are found in the yolk—but so are most of the vitamins and other healthy nutrients.

The latest US dietary guidelines (see this issue’s Special Supplement) advise, “Evidence suggests that one egg (i.e. egg yolk) per day does not result in increased blood-cholesterol levels, nor does it increase the risk of cardiovascular disease in healthy people.”

But don’t read that as a free pass to the omelet bar. The guidelines still advise limiting dietary cholesterol to 300 milligrams daily, so a typical two-egg meal made with updated eggs puts even healthy people over the top. And people at risk of cardiovascular disease should stay under 200 milligrams of dietary cholesterol daily. With 185 milligrams in just one egg, adding a single tablespoon of butter would crack the 200 mark.

So what’s an egg lover to do? Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, director of Tufts HNRCA Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, advises that it is important to think in terms of your whole diet and not individual foods. “People who have been told to use diet to lower their cholesterol levels should first focus on achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight and cutting the saturated and trans fat in their diet,” she explains. “For some people eating an egg a day is fine, especially if they do not have high cholesterol levels or eat a lot of other animal foods. For people who have been told they have high cholesterol levels or eat other animal foods and enjoy eggs, there are other options, such as making an omelet with one whole egg and two egg whites or using the cholesterol-free egg substitutes found in most supermarkets.”

The Updated Egg
An average large egg,
yolk and white, contains:
72 calories
6.3 g protein
1.5 g saturated fat
186 mg cholesterol
41 IU vitamin D

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