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Nutrition

Sunny side up: How healthy are your eggs?

August 14th 2017 / Anna Hunter / 0 comment

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As the egg scandal continues to make headlines you may want to make your egg sandwiches at home - but how healthy are the eggs you're buying? From animal welfare to omega-3s, there’s a lot to consider when popping an egg in your basket. Here’s what to buy, cook and bin…

The European Commision has warned recently that at least 15 European countries have received eggs contaminated with the insecticide fipronil, the UK being one of them. While the Food Standards Agency has issued a statement to reassure us that the risk to public health is low, processed eggs in sandwiches, salads and other shop-bought products are the most likely to be affected. Despite the scare, eggs bought off the shelf are very, very unlikely to be contaminated, and from Sunday brunch to meat-free Monday, eggs have gained avocado-like levels of kudos across social media channels of late. Whether you’re tucking into eggs and soldiers, an omelette or some other eggy concoction, here’s the hen-cyclopedia (sorry, but it’s only just beginning) of what eggs bring to the table.

The health profile

The humble egg has a LOT going on. Freelance dietitian and BDA spokesperson Linia Patel breaks it down:

“Eggs are composed of four main parts: the yolk, the white (albumen), the shell membrane and the shell. Although small, eggs are a nutrition powerhouse. They contain high quality protein, fat (a greater percentage of the healthy fats), a range of vitamins and minerals as well as connective tissue building blocks (glycosaminoglycans). Nutrient-wise, they’re eggscellent (apologies). Let’s zoom in on why…”

Yolk: Excellent source of B vitamins such as B2 (riboflavin) and vitamin B12 (folate).

A good source of the fat-soluble vitamins A and D and E.

Contains many of the minerals the body requires for good health such as iodine, selenium, phosphorus and zinc.

A good source of lutein and zeaxanthin which are known to protect the eye. Although high in fat, the majority of fat contained is from healthy fats that we need in our diet.

White (albumen): An inexpensive source of high quality protein.

Eggshell membrane: Rich source of proteins and connective tissue building blocks (glycosaminoglycans) such as glucosamine sulphate, chondroitin sulphate, hyaluronan, collagen type 1 and calcium. These are the elements needed to repair and rebuild cartilage and ligaments. Can be used in supplements.

The cholesterol conundrum

Eggs have suffered their fair share of bad PR in the past, particularly where heart health and cholesterol is concerned. Linia speaks up for eggs everywhere:

“Although the yolk contains cholesterol, science has shown that this has much less effect on our blood cholesterol than the cholesterol we make in our body ourselves in response to a high saturated fat diet. Although no official recommendation exists for egg intake, research suggests that heart disease risk does not increase in healthy adults consuming up to six or seven eggs per week as part of a healthy diet.”

If you have issues with cholesterol, chat the egg issue through with your GP, but it’s safe to say that eggs are not the prime suspect where high blood cholesterol levels are concerned.

Pr-eggnancy advice

If you’re egg-specting, don’t swerve an eggy breakfast, but do bear in mind that safe scramble and the like is all in the cooking, as Linia explains:

“Eggs are rich in lots of essential nutrients that promote a healthy heart and help in brain development, such as choline. During pregnancy or breastfeeding women should ensure that the egg is well cooked, i.e, that both the egg white and yolk are solid, to avoid the risk of salmonella food poisoning.”

In short, you can’t go wrong with hard boiled, and be alert for raw egg hiding in unsuspecting places, such as mousses, mayonnaise, ice cream and sauces such as hollandaise and béarnaise. If these products are shop bought, they’ll most likely be made with pasteurised egg, so you needn’t worry, but always ask or check the label.

How to serve them

You don’t need us to tell you- this can be as simple as boiling an egg or as tricky as nailing a soufflé. For particularly dietitian approved meals, combine eggs with wholegrain toast in boiled, poached, scrambled or omelette form, alongside vegetables, or add egg to salads to boost protein content. Linia likes boiled eggs as snacks too. Perhaps don’t whip them out on the tube.

For further egg based meal or snack ideas, go on an egg hunt in our recipe section.

What to buy

It can be tricky to weigh up your options when stood in a supermarket confronted with illustrations of happy looking hens and Hovis-like countryside scenes. Here’s what to put on your shopping list, starting with a basic pointer to avoid both disappointment and a health scare from Linia:

“Always pick eggs that are perfectly intact, not cracked or broken. Get into the habit of inspecting your eggs before buying them.”

Organic

The golden egg from both an animal welfare and health point of view. According to Linia, picking organic or free-range has health kudos:

“Good husbandry will have a positive impact on the nutritional quality of the eggs.”

When buying organic, you’ll pay a premium, but you’re shelling out for top notch standards in terms of giving chickens a good life. Look out for eggs laid at an organic farm certified by the Soil Association, which offers the highest levels of animal husbandry, with flocks generally no larger than 2000 and 10m² of outdoor space per hen.

Unsurprisingly, beak trimming is also banned by the Soil Association. Beak-trimming is a common practice in the UK and worldwide whereby laying hens have around a third of their beaks removed by infrared, with no anaesthetic, to reduce incidences of ‘feather pecking’, where chickens peck each other, often aggressively. Although the RSPCA supports a ban on beak-trimming (which the government rejected last year), the harm caused by feather-pecking often doesn’t leave non-organic farmers with many options where beak-trimming is concerned, as highlighted in an RSPCA statement on the subject:

“We’re disappointed that the serious problems that can occur from injurious pecking and cannibalism, cannot yet be fully and confidently avoided without beak trimming.”

If you’re investing in organic eggs, farmers have resources to give birds more space and higher quality feed (often organic), and each stage of egg production will be regularly and thoroughly audited. You may find that egg size varies in the box too, as eggs laid by pullets (young hens) tend to be smaller, while eggs laid by older hens are paler in colour and larger. Less constrictions regarding uniformity means higher welfare for chickens, as some chickens farmed by other methods are forced to produce up to 500 eggs a year due to overfeeding and constant exposure to artificial light, when in the wild they may only lay up to 20.

Despite the overwhelming benefits of buying organic, only 2% of the 12.2bn eggs sold in the UK in 2015 were organic. In the same vein as buying better quality meat, less frequently, it might be worth re-assessing your weekly egg budget if you have the means. That way you know that the romantic illustration on your egg box is far closer to reality. Look for ‘0’ on the box when you’re buying, and as when buying all eggs, the British Lion quality mark indicates that the eggs were laid in the UK, with hens immunised against salmonella.

Free-range

Free-range eggs make up 50% of all eggs sold in the UK, and you can identify them via ‘1’ printed on the box. As far as welfare goes, a free-range bird will have access to outdoor space with greenery all day, with at least 4m² allocated per hen. At nighttime, hens are kept indoors in barns, with a maximum of nine birds per m² and beds and perches must be provided.

Beak trimming is relatively routine in the free-range system, but look out for British Blacktail eggs in supermarkets, which are laid by hens that haven’t undergone beak trimming.

It’s worth noting that at the current time, due to biosecurity measures against the spread of avian flu, approximately 20% of formerly free-range farms are keeping hens indoors in high risk areas, and as a result these eggs will be relabelled as barn eggs.

Barn eggs

Coming in at a fifth cheaper than free-range, barn eggs, as the name suggests, are laid by hens that are kept in barns, with up to nine hens permitted per m². Hens have scratches, beds and perches, plus boxes in which to lay eggs (one box per five hens). Beak trimming is usually practiced. If boxes are stamped with the British Lion symbol (also look for the number ‘2’), flocks will be no larger than 6000 birds.

Caged eggs

The lowest of the low where hen welfare is concerned, although battery cages were banned in the EU in 2012. If you’re going to buy caged (the box will be stamped with a ‘3’), always buy British, as this at least guarantees that hens are housed in “enriched” cages, with small areas to nest, scratch and run, and slightly higher and wider cages (13-14 hens per m²). Hens almost always undergo beak trimming. If you’re looking to avoid caged eggs, shop at Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Co-Op and Marks & Spencer, all of which no longer sell caged eggs.

Omega 3 enriched eggs

More and more ranges come complete with added “good fats”. Here’s Linia’s verdict:

“Omega-3 enriched eggs will have a little more omega-3 than regular eggs, but this amount is very small, so can be used to top up your intake of omega-3, however isn’t going to deliver your intake of omega-3 for the day. If you buy these eggs, eat them as early as possible to keep these oils fresh!”

Duck eggs

Think your average egg, gone XL. Linia puts it simply:

“Duck eggs are larger and have more protein, fat and cholesterol than chicken eggs”

Quail eggs

In the case of quail eggs, Linia underlines that the opposite criteria applies:

“Quail eggs have a similar nutritional composition and flavour to chicken eggs but they are much smaller so you need to eat about five quail eggs to equal one large chicken egg.”

A note on yolks

A bright, Berocca shade of yolk may be the most desirable, and in many cases a vibrant yolk is indicative that a hen has had a varied diet with plenty of fresh greens and often corn, but it’s worth mentioning that, especially during the winter months when vegetation is scarce, feed is sometimes supplemented with a natural colouring called citranaxanthin, which is found in the peel of citrus fruits. Other colourings, such as canthaxanthin which is occasionally used abroad, are banned by the British Lion code of practice.

Don’t whisk it

The NHS recommends eating eggs no later than 28 days after they’ve been laid, but to test whether your egg is a goner, gently ease it into a glass of water. If it’s fresh it will sink, and if it’s rotten, it’ll float. It’s also recommended to store eggs in the fridge, and once cooked eat them within two days (you can stretch it to three if they’re hard boiled).

Want to get cracking immediately? This herby green omelette recipe by Amelia Freer will be ready at lightening speed

Follow Anna on Twitter @AnnaMaryHunter and Instagram @annyhunter


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