By Larry Levine –

Why are some eggs brown and some white? Are brown eggs healthier to eat?

What can you tell from a chicken’s ear lobes?

Are eggs still taboo because of the cholesterol content?

How do you know if an egg is still fresh?

What does the “sell by” date mean on a box of eggs?

Does “free range” or “organic” really matter?

My mother would have eaten eggs for all three meals every day and been happy. A soft boiled egg – closer to two minutes than three minutes – eaten right out of the shell with a piece of toast and butter was her ultimate at-home culinary delight.

Of course, she didn’t eat eggs three meals a day. She cooked for the rest of us and usually ate what she served us. But a soft boiled egg it was for breakfast virtually every day and for lunch many days.

From that genetic line it’s no wonder I spent many years eating 18 to 24 eggs a week. Raw, poached very soft, or soft boiled were my favorites. Sunnyside up was good as long as the yolk was still runny. Omelets were fine. Never liked over easy or scrambled.

That was all just fine until my cholesterol hit 279 about 22 years ago, about the same time the egg industry was getting pilloried with bad publicity about cholesterol. A quick review of my diet led my doctor to order my egg consumption cut to no more than four a week.

In recent years the reputation of the egg has rebounded. What we don’t know for sure, however, is whether the egg really isn’t as bad as it was once thought to be or if the public relations campaign of the egg industry is responsible for the new respectability.

According to the Mayo Clinic web site, “Chicken eggs are high in cholesterol, and a diet high in cholesterol can contribute to high blood cholesterol levels.”

Define “high in cholesterol.” The Mayo Clinic site advises a healthy person to keep dietary cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams a day. People with cardiovascular disease, diabetes or high levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) should stay under 200 milligrams. One large egg contains about 213 milligrams of cholesterol – all of which is in the yolk. So, if you are going to have an egg or two it’s a great idea to limit the cholesterol you eat from other sources the rest of that day as well as the days before and after.

So, what about brown eggs; aren’t they healthier? At the risk of unleashing an angry torrent of invective I’ll answer: No. According to the Egg Nutrition Center in Washington, D.C., the color of the egg shell has nothing to do with the quality, nutritional value or taste of the egg. The nutritional value of an egg depends on what the hens are fed. If the hen is fed flax seeds it will produce eggs with elevated levels of Omega 3, which is known to fight cholesterol. But the egg itself still will be high in cholesterol.

The color of the egg is due to the breed of the chicken. Hens with white feathers and white earlobes lay white eggs; hens with red feathers and matching earlobes lay brown eggs. Now, unless you really know what you’re doing around a chicken, I wouldn’t recommend trying to look at its earlobe. Chickens peck and can cause severe injury. You’d be better advised to just go to the market and open a box of eggs if you want to see the color.

The reason brown eggs cost more has nothing to do with quality or nutritional value. It’s simply because they come from larger chickens that require more feed, thus making the eggs more expensive to produce.

Freshness is not an issue if you eat eggs as frequently as my mother or I used to. Mom would take a two-hour round trip drive to a poultry ranch, where she would buy a couple dozen fresh eggs and a fresh killed chicken. I would buy two dozen eggs at the market each week and know they would be gone before they lost their freshness. But if you are going to be more restrained than we were, here is a tip for testing eggs for freshness:

Fill a deep bowl with cold tap water and lower the egg into the water. A fresh egg will sink to the bottom and lie on its side because the air cell in the egg is small. When an egg loses its freshness more air gathers inside and it will begin to stand upright with the wider end at the top. The egg will still be edible if not totally fresh. But if the egg starts to float and loses contact with the bottom of the bowl it probably has gone bad. 

An egg’s freshness is not determined strictly by the date on which it was laid. Unless you go right to the source – an egg ranch – it’s a good bet you’re not buying eggs the same day they were laid. That makes the way eggs are handled and stored on their way to market – even if it’s a farmers market – an important factor. An egg left at room temperature for a full day will not be as fresh as a week old egg that has been refrigerated between 33 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit from the time it was laid. So, that box of eggs marked “free range, organic, no antibiotics” that’s sitting in the sun on the counter at the farmers market – probably not a great idea unless you are going use the fairly soon.

Most egg cartons carry a “sell by” date, even though it isn’t required. In plants inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that date cannot be more than 30 days after the date the eggs are packed. Refrigerated raw eggs will keep without significant loss of quality for about four or five weeks beyond the packing date, or three weeks after you bring them home. You should never buy eggs beyond their “sell by” date. The packing dates can be found on egg cartons with the USDA-inspected shield on them, though those dates are somewhat obscured. Instead of an actual date it shows up as the “Julian Date”, with January 1 being 001 and December 31 being 365.

Free range eggs are eggsactly what they sound like – eggs from chickens that roam free in a farmyard, shed or chicken coop. Most super market eggs come from chickens that are raised in cages and never touch the ground. Laws concerning what may be sold as free range vary from state to state and country to country. Some places have no standards at all. The U.S. Department of Agriculture allows egg producers to label any egg as free range, so the label by itself is no guarantee of anything.

Real free range, however, does not mean hens are fed any differently than chickens on commercial farms. If you find eggs that actually are free range, they are likely to be higher in protein than caged eggs because the chickens will add protein rich bugs and insects to their diets. A 2010 study by the USDA determined there are no added nutritional benefits to free range eggs when compared to factory eggs. That study did not measure the types of fat or the differences in vitamin and fatty acid content. Other tests found higher levels of Omega 3 and vitamins A and E and lower levels of total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol in genuine free range eggs.

Free range eggs are cheaper than organic eggs because the free range chickens can be fed the same diet as chickens raised on non-organic farms.

Organic eggs come from hens that are fed an organic diet. The USDA requires that hens must have access to the outdoors and cannot be raised in cages to have their eggs carry the organic label.

The primary differences between free range and organic eggs are the feed, medication and welfare of the chickens. Organic hens are fed organic, non-fertilized feed, which means no animal by products or genetically modified crops. No antibiotics are allowed expect in emergency situations. Chickens must be maintained in a low stress environment. There are a number of additional requirements, but these are the highlights.

Earlier I said my favorite way to eat an egg is raw. This never fails to draw raised eyebrows and questions. But a Caesar salad without raw egg yolks just isn’t the real thing. To my taste the more an egg is cooked the less flavor there will be in the yolk, and the yolk is the repository of all the flavor in an egg. So, don’t give me egg whites, or egg substitutes, and poach my eggs just until the white has set.

The USDA recommends against eating raw or undercooked eggs because of the possibility that salmonella bacteria may be present. It’s a risk I’m willing to take. But before you emulate my behavior, it would be a good ides to do some independent research and decide for yourself if you are willing to assume the very real risk involved in eating raw or lightly cooked eggs.

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