The supermarket case displays a wide variety of egg choices—at a wide range of prices. Are some eggs really better than others? Here are the important things to consider when deciding which eggs are the right choice for you:
The Basics: Color, size, and grade are the primary ways eggs are grouped.
- Egg color is determined by the breed of chicken. Shell color has absolutely no impact on nutritional content or quality.
- Size (Small, Medium, Large, X-Large, and Jumbo) is actually measured by weight per dozen, not by the dimensions of each egg. Weights range from 18 to 30 ounces (oz) per dozen. Large eggs, at about 24 oz per dozen, tend to be the standard size called for in recipes.
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a voluntary egg grading program. Graders examine interior and exterior quality, check weight, and monitor plant processing equipment, facilitates, sanitation, and operating procedures. Nearly all eggs in supermarkets are Grade A.
Nutrition: One large egg has 75 calories, seven grams of high-quality protein, and five grams of fat (just under two grams of which are saturated fat) along with iron, vitamins, minerals, and carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin, which support eye health. Eggs are one of the richest sources of dietary cholesterol—around 200 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol in one large egg yolk—and contribute, on average, 25 percent of dietary cholesterol in the U.S. The latest research indicates that, at current intake levels (about 250 mg per day for women and 350 mg per day for men from all food sources), dietary cholesterol is only weakly related to levels of cholesterol in the blood and neither dietary cholesterol nor egg consumption is significantly associated with cardiovascular disease risk. The American Heart Association’s 2019 scientific advisory on dietary cholesterol and cardiovascular risk advises that healthy individuals can include up to one whole egg daily without concern. Older individuals with normal cholesterol levels and vegetarians (who do not get cholesterol from meat-based cholesterol-containing foods) may include more eggs in their diets. “There are some individuals, such as those with diabetes, high cholesterol levels, or risk for heart failure, who should be more cautious in consuming foods rich in cholesterol,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory and executive editor of Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter. “If you are concerned, check with your healthcare provider and follow their recommendation.”
While a typical egg contains about 30 or 40 milligrams (mg) of omega-3 fatty acids, hens fed flaxseed will lay eggs that typically have around 125 mg of this fat, but most of this is in the form of ALA, not the heart-healthy forms, EPA and DHA. “Eggs advertised as high in omega-3 fatty acids are still not a particularly good source,” says Lichtenstein. A serving of salmon is a much better way to get omega-3 fatty acids than eggs—even if they say omega-3-enriched.
What we eat with—and instead of—our eggs matters. “It is not infrequent for eggs to be partnered with bacon, sausage, white toast, and/or white potatoes,” says Lichtenstein. “These are not the components of a heart-healthy meal. Eggs scrambled with some sautéed onions, peppers, spinach, or another readily available vegetable (even poured out of a bag of frozen veggies), along with whole wheat toast, is a good choice for breakfast—far better than presweetened breakfast cereals and other options like bagels and pancakes made with refined-grains.”
Animal Welfare: Egg-laying hens are typically kept in crowded cages that restrict natural behaviors and may increase disease risk. They have their beaks cut so they can’t peck at themselves or each other and are sometimes starved to induce molting (shedding of feathers). Eggs labelled “cage-free” or “free-range” come from hens with some access to the outdoors. These eggs will likely be more expensive because of higher production costs. Some private groups offer “humane” certification for eggs from hens that have outdoor access, are not forced to molt, and do not have their beaks cut. (See “Decoding Egg Labels”).
Safety: The USDA requires eggs to be washed and refrigerated to reduce risk of bacterial contamination. Keeping eggs at 45 degrees Fahrenheit or lower prevents growth of bacteria like Salmonella. Eggs naturally have a thin film around the shell that protects them from bacterial intrusion. Eggs that have not been washed can be kept at room temperature because this coating is still intact, but their shelf life will be shorter than that of refrigerated eggs.
Always closely inspect your eggs for cracks. Bacteria can make its way through cracks and contaminate the egg. If your eggs crack on the way home, break them into a container that can be tightly sealed, refrigerate and use within two days,
Bottom Line: “The evidence suggests that, for most individuals, moderate egg consumption (the equivalent of a couple of eggs every other day), has little effect on blood cholesterol levels and heart health,” says Lichtenstein. “More important is making healthy choices to eat with the eggs.” Whether you choose based on price, animal welfare, or other concerns, which eggs to buy ultimately comes down to what matters most to you.