Every 24 to 26 hours, a hen lays an egg. With a “rest” of thirty minutes, she then starts the process all over again.
For her efforts, and those of her more than a quarter of a million colleagues, Americans enjoy their production of over 72 billion eggs each year.
The egg is a nutrient rich food; its yolk naturally has Vitamin D, plus vitamins E and A and zinc, and its white albumen contains more than half of an egg’s total protein, riboflavin, magnesium and potassium, sodium, sulfur and niacin.
Yes, eggs have cholesterol – one egg has about 215 milligrams (the recommended daily allowance (RDA) is 300 milligrams) and all of it is in the yolk, so for those concerned about their cholesterol separating the yolks from the egg whites is a must.
The 5 Things You Need to Know:
1. Are they fresh?
All USDA inspected eggs require packing dates and plant numbers. But they could be confusing since about 15 states have their own egg safety regulations.
Expiration dates or sell-buy date: these dates extend no longer than 30 days from when the eggs were packed. Typically eggs will stay fresh 10-15 days after this date if properly stored.
Use-by or best before date: these dates are typically 45 days from packing.
Packing date: the day of the year, example today would show “360”, that the eggs were packed in the carton, usually within one week of egg laying.
When cracked the egg’s color is a good indication of freshness and safety. Clear egg whites are from older, but safe eggs; pinkish egg whites mean the egg is spoiled and a cloudy egg white means it is VERY fresh. Blood spots in egg yolks are safe, but best bet is to remove them before cooking for eye appeal.
And one of the best ways to tell if an egg you have at home is fresh is to see if it floats: fresh eggs will sink, while older eggs float. As an egg ages, air is absorbed thru the shell and it loses water and carbon dioxide thru the pores making it lighter.
2. Can you believe the labels?
Egg cartons have more labels on them then just about any other food, so you need to read them carefully. Remember that the use of hormones in poultry has been banned since the 1960s – so all eggs are hormone free by law.
The term is meaningless for eggs – according to FDA regulations, no additives or colors can ever be added to eggs.
CAGE FREE or Free-Roaming
Over 90% of all hens are raised in battery cages that are between 48 and 68 square inches. According to THE USDA and FDA, “cage-free” or “free-roaming” means that the hens are not in cages, however they still are confined in an enclosed building.
Probably the most misunderstood of all the claims, it’s important to note that hens basically stay near their food, water and nests, and the idea of a happy go lucky bird scampering across a field is far from their natural way of life. This claim only means that the hens have access to the outdoors, not that they avail themselves of the opportunity. The hens produce fewer eggs so they are more expensive; higher product costs add to the price of the eggs. The nutrient content is the same as other eggs.
There is no USDA approved definition for this claim, and hens need a diet which includes protein, which naturally often includes eating bugs – which makes this claim circumspect at best.
The farms meet specific criteria including: cage free, no antibiotics in feed, vegetarian feed, and allow the hens a natural environment for behaviors like preening and scratching.
Fertile eggs are those that, when incubated, will develop into chicks. They are not more nutritious than other eggs and are usually priced higher than others, and are much more perishable.
USDA Certified ORGANIC
Organic eggs reflect the diet of the laying hens that eat only organic feed and grains grown without fungicides, herbicides, commercial fertilizers, pesticides and do not contain any animal or poultry by-products (but no regulations are in place for fish meal). No antibiotics or growth hormones are ever given to the hens, they are allowed access to the outdoors, and there is no forced molting (starvation to increase production). The nutrient content is the same as other eggs, but they are more expensive because of lower output per hen and higher production costs.
3. Egg Nutrition 101
Eggs are low in fat, low in carbohydrates and contain about 1.5 grams of saturated fat and 0.05 grams of Trans fat per large egg.
A single egg also contains about 215 milligrams of cholesterol – with the RDA for eggs at just 300 milligrams a day – that means just one egg a day…or my recommendation is to separate the yolks from egg whites and then add the egg whites to one whole egg.
Eggs are rich in zeaxanthin and lutein, which is important for eye health – they reduce free radical damage and prevent hardening of the arteries in the eyes. Absorption of lutein is greater than in other foods since an egg is a fat soluble nutrient. To make sure you get the benefit of the lutein properties from other foods, for example spinach, be sure to drizzle olive oil on top to increase absorption.
Eggs also contain choline which helps with fetal brain development and decrease of memory in later life.
Many egg cartons now promote omega-3 fatty acids, the nutritional benefits are not naturally occurring, but rather are produced by feeding the hens these nutrients which are then passed thru to the eggs.
4. Don’t pay more for brown eggs!
Nutritionally speaking, white and brown eggs are identical – but brown eggs can cost an extra 50 cents or more a dozen. White eggs come from hens with white feathers and brown from hens with red feathers – that’s the only difference.
5. Bird Flu and Food Safety
Eggs MUST always be cooked thoroughly. 75% of all cases of Salmonella have been linked to foods containing raw or undercooked eggs. Be sure to cook eggs till the yolks are firm and never runny. Don’t use raw eggs in salad dressings or mayonnaise, cookie dough or any other recipes.
USDA, FDA and World Health Organization concur that if the avian influenza virus is present in eggs it will be destroyed through proper cooking. If a bird does contract the disease, sick birds quickly stop producing eggs.
More on eggs:
Egg size reflects the age of the hen: the older the hen the larger the egg. The breed, the weight, and conditions where they’re raised can also contribute to size. Conditions can involve heat, stress, overcrowding, or poor nutrition. Extra Large, Large and Medium the most common, but there are also Jumbo, Small, and Peewee. Egg grades are about ratio and quality of white to yolk; they are AA, A, and B. Grades AA and A have thicker whites and firm round yolks than B Grade eggs.
Nutritionally speaking eggs are the same regardless of color or grade; but the newest trend is actually feeding the hens with nutrients, such as Omega-3s to increase the nutrients in the egg itself.
Hens with white feathers and ear lobes produce white-shelled eggs; hens with red feathers and red ear lobes produce brown eggs. The most popular brown egg breeders are Rhode Island Red, New Hampshire, or Plymouth Rock breeds, and because the hens are slightly bigger and require more food, brown eggs are usually more expensive than white ones, although there is no difference nutritionally.
The yellow of an egg yolk depends on the diet of the laying hen; if she gets loads of yellow corn or alfalfa meal, she’s lay medium yellow yolks; if she gets wheat or barley mashes, she’ll yield lighter colored yolks. Additives are not allowed by law; however marigold petals are often added to enhance the color. The whites of eggs should be opalescent rather than white to indicate freshness.
USDA-inspected plants that package eggs indicate when the eggs are packed; most also indicate suggested expiration dates. Some states have their own guidelines for locally produced eggs. Plants not under USDA inspection may package eggs without dates.
If people are what they eat, the same idea goes for hens and the eggs they produce. Most laying hens are fed grains, are kept in indoor areas, and the time between laying and packaging is very short to insure freshness. Other producers opt for certain breeds because they naturally produce larger eggs. These are all factors to consider in the purchase of eggs. No matter where you live, consider buying eggs produced as close to you as possible. And, considering that eggs are a good source of protein, vitamins, and minerals, the cost per serving is remarkably low, from a low of 7 ½ to a high of 50 cents per egg for some of the newer and more “designer style” eggs.
Always refrigerate eggs; they should keep up to one month beyond their packing date under ideal conditions. Store them in the carton and make sure the lid is securely fastened. Because eggshells have thousands of tiny pores, do not store them in an open basket or box which will make the eggs vulnerable to absorbing odors from other foods. Never store them in the egg unit in the door of a refrigerator which prevents a proper airflow.
Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at SuperMarketGuru.com.