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Sorting Eggs: How To Make The Right Choice

by Nancy Maneely

Worried about the cholesterol in your morning omelet? You shouldn’t be. You can eat one or two eggs a day without raising your cholesterol, according to nutrition experts. A statistical analysis of 224 studies over the past 25 years with over 8,000 people found that eating foods high in cholesterol, like eggs, did not raise blood levels of cholesterol.

Eggs provide choline and selenium. Choline is a nutrient shown to reduce inflammation and support healthy brain cells. Selenium is needed in the body’s manufacture of selenoproteins, which prevent cellular damage from free radicals.

New research reveals that the healthfulness of an egg may depend largely on what the hen eats.  One recent study showed that hens raised on a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids results in eggs with a healthier antioxidant profile. The downside: This omega-3-rich chicken feed – favoring wheat, barley and milo over the cheaper ingredients of soy, maize and and sunflower – translates into higher prices at the grocery store.

It’s easy to become confused while looking over the variety and cost of eggs on the store shelves. Is it worth paying more for eggs that are organic? What what’s the difference between “cage-free” and “free-range” hens? The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides the following guidelines for consumers:

Organic eggs are derived from hens raised, housed, and fed in compliance with the regulations of the National Organic Program administered by  the USDA.

To qualify as organic, eggs must come from chickens that are fed only organic feed, i.e., feed that is free of animal by-products, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or other chemical additives. No genetically modified foods can be used. Additionally, organic eggs must come from chickens that are given antibiotics only in the event of an infection; commercial chickens, on the other hand, are given antibiotics on a routine basis. No hormones or other drugs can be used in organic egg production.

The “organic” label means molting cannot be induced in chickens. Molting -- when birds shed their older feathers to make room for new ones -- is sometimes induced in commercial egg and chicken production by withholding food, water or by other means. Molting extends the productive life of laying chickens.

Organic eggs must come from chickens that live in cage-free environments and have access to the outdoors, even if their outdoor area is just a small pen or enclosed yard area.

Cage-free eggs are from hens that are allowed to move freely within their house either on a combination of litter and slat flooring or in an aviary structure. In both of the housing systems, feed and water is provided continuously. Nests are provided for the flock from which eggs are collected either manually or on a mechanical belt.

Cage-free means the hens can roam around in a very large building, but do not have outdoor access like free-range hens. The hens are allowed to move freely within their house either on a combination of litter and slat flooring or in an aviary structure. In both of the housing systems, feed and water is provided continuously.

Free-range chickens. Actually, the USDA does not recognize the term “free-range” as applying to eggs, only to chickens, turkeys and other poultry.

Unlike the term "USDA Organic," which can only be applied to foods that meet exacting USDA guidelines, use of the term "free-range" is less strict. Any chickens that have regular access to an outdoor area -- a patch of cement or a small, fenced gravel yard -- can be called free-range. Even if a bird gets just five minutes of outdoor time a day, she qualifies as a free-range chicken.

The take-away from all this? If you're looking for a healthier product, it makes sense to choose the eggs labeled organic. These are the only ones that have strict, well-defined criteria for feed, antibiotics and processing, as well as the built-in assurance that they’re from “cage-free” hens.

From the standpoint of freshness, flavor and humane treatment of animals, one sure bet is to gather eggs from your own backyard flock. As more cities and towns across the U.S. amend their zoning laws to allow backyard chicken coops, this is becoming a more commonplace source of our favorite high-protein breakfast food.

 

Sources:

World’s Healthiest Foods

Science Daily

USDA

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