Whether they’re served over-easy with a side of toast, or baked into a birthday cake, eggs have become such an integral part of American diets that few people think twice about their nutritional content. As new studies emerge, however, many of the perceived health benefits of eggs are being called into question.
ARE EGGS HEALTHY?
The question of whether or not eggs are healthy can be a difficult one to answer. Eggs have long been considered healthy, even called a superfood by health professionals who cite their high protein content, as well as a range of vitamins and fats that are crucial to the proper functioning of the human body. But eating eggs is not for everyone, especially for those who are at risk for certain diseases and for those who eat eggs in excess.
HOW EGGS RISK YOUR HEALTH
While eggs are considered a good source of protein, they’re also high in cholesterol and other substances that can be harmful, especially if they are eaten frequently. Scientists have linked regular consumption of eggs to a heightened risk of cancer, diabetes, and other diseases.
The cholesterol and fat content of eggs have been known to lead to certain cancers, including colorectal and prostate cancers. One study found that men who consumed over two eggs per week had an 81% higher risk of developing prostate cancer when compared with men who consumed less than one egg per week.
Research also links egg consumption and diabetes. A study published in 2020 by the British Journal of Nutrition found that the risk of the disease increased by 60% for study participants who ate one or more eggs per day. The results of the study were not conclusive, however. Participants in the study who ate high volumes of eggs were also found to be less physically active, had higher cholesterol levels, and in general ate more animal products besides eggs.
Other studies have concluded that high egg consumption can lead to diabetes. In particular, women are 77% more likely to develop the disease after consuming seven or more eggs every week.
A 2019 study found that eating eggs can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, thanks to eggs’ high cholesterol content. The study collected data from existing studies involving around 30,000 people who were observed for an average of 17.5 years. It found that for each half of an egg consumed in a day, the risk of developing heart disease rose by 6%.
Food poisoning and contaminants
Salmonella is a major culprit when it comes to food poisoning. This bacteria, found in the feces of animals, can be present on eggshells, contaminating food. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that salmonella-contaminated eggs cause about 30 deaths and sicken nearly 80,000 Americans per year.
Symptoms of food poisoning include fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and, in rare cases, death.
THE EGG INDUSTRY AND CRUELTY TO CHICKENS
Layer hens are considered some of the most abused farmed animals in the world. On factory farms, layer hens are often held in battery cages where they are given roughly the same amount of floor space as a piece of lined paper. Hens are so tightly confined that they can’t run, perch, roost, explore, or even fully stretch their wings. They’re locked indoors for the majority of their lives. Simply put, life in a battery cage is no life at all.
Because male chickens are useless to the egg industry, they’re killed within hours of hatching. Most of the animals killed on factory farms are very young animals, but male chicks are only hours old when they are either suffocated to death or ground up alive in a gruesome process known as maceration.
Layer hens also face what is arguably the cruelest slaughter method currently employed by slaughterhouses: live-shackle slaughter. So-called “spent hens” are hung upside down into metal stirrups, often resulting in broken bones. A conveyor belt then sends hens through an electrified bath meant to stun them before their throats are slit, after which they are thrown into a vat of boiling water.
Even if chickens are properly stunned, this slaughter method can be extremely stressful and painful for chickens. However, many birds remain conscious after their electrocution, meaning they’re awake for the most painful steps of the process. Many also survive the throat-slitting. The USDA estimates that over half a million chickens are boiled alive each year.
DECODING EGG LABELS
Egg labels can be confusing. Decoding these labels is difficult since they conceal important nuances regarding the treatment of hens. Cartons with no labels at all might indicate that hens were held in battery cages, considered to be the cruelest and most inhumane form of captivity for egg-laying hens.
The cage-free egg label indicates that hens were not locked into battery cages. While this is certainly an important step, cage-free factory farms still keep hens indoors in windowless sheds for the entirety of their short lives.
Free-range eggs are another step up from battery cages and are an improvement over cage-free eggs. Free-range hens are required to have access to some outdoor space. However, there are generally no requirements over how much outdoor space hens are required to have, or for how long they have access to these spaces. In some cases, the outdoor space is only large enough to hold a handful of hens at a time, while thousands of hens are left to languish inside the barn.
Pasture-raised eggs indicate that hens were allowed to spend significant amounts of time outdoors. In some pasture-raised operations, hens are free to roam in grassy fields, foraging for insects and dust-bathing. These birds are freer to express the feelings and behaviors that make them unique.
The USDA’s organic certification means that hens were fed an organic, vegetarian diet, as opposed to feed filled with antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides. While these factors are important to consider, since these harmful compounds can wind up negatively impacting human health, the organic label does not refer to any welfare standards of any kind.
Eggs can be a good source of omega-3, an important set of fatty acids that are beneficial for brain and body health. The omega-3 content of eggs can be amplified by incorporating omega-rich components into a hen’s diet. This can be done by enriching the chickens’ feed with flax, for example. Omega-3 enrichment also occurs when birds are allowed to spend more time foraging outdoors.
While omega-3 enriched eggs carry superior health benefits, the label does not necessarily indicate better welfare conditions for hens.
There are numerous ways to substitute eggs in your diet. Eggs can act as effective binding agents in many recipes, including baking. Fortunately, there are many simple and widely-available replacements for eggs in these contexts, such as:
- Ground flaxseeds
- Arrowroot powder
- Potato starch
- Egg replacer mixtures, such as this one
- JUST Egg
If you’re afraid of missing dishes like scrambled eggs and omelets, innovative new products are so similar to the real thing that they’ve even fooled some food reviewers.
Keeping eggs off your plate can not only be better for your health, but can reduce the suffering laying hens endure in factory farms. With the advent of exciting new egg substitutes, it’s never been easier to remove eggs from your diet to show compassion for hundreds of thousands of layer hens around the world.