Economical and easy to prepare in many ways, eggs appear to be perfect little protein packages. But Consumer Reports notes that the advice on eating them seems to change frequently, especially concerning whether their cholesterol content is safe for people with cardiovascular disease.
So what's a health-conscious consumer supposed to do? One large egg has 186 milligrams of cholesterol in the yolk, while the egg white is cholesterol-free.
An August 2012 study suggested a link between egg yolk consumption and plaque buildup in the carotid artery, a significant predictor of heart disease. That study contrasts with earlier research that found no evidence linking egg consumption with coronary disease.
"What appears to be more important than an individual food is total cholesterol intake, regardless of whether it comes from eggs or other food sources such as full-fat dairy products or meat," says Dr. Alice H. Lichtenstein, director and senior scientist at the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University in Boston.
But be careful about confusing dietary cholesterol with blood cholesterol (LDL, HDL and triglycerides). "The major determinant of blood LDL cholesterol is saturated fat," Lichtenstein says. "There is a recommendation to limit dietary sources of saturated fat, primarily found in dairy and meat fat." Although the saturated fat in eggs is relatively low compared with many other animal-based protein sources (one large egg has just under 2 grams of saturated fat), many of the foods that often accompany eggs (such as bacon, butter, cheese and sausage) are high in saturated fat.
The government's 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day (less than 200 milligrams a day if you're at high risk of cardiovascular disease). The guidelines also state that one egg a day should be fine for healthy people.
Remember that eggs can be in many foods, including bread, cakes, ice cream, muffins and even entrees like breaded fish, meat dishes or meatloaf. Each of those might add just a fraction of an egg per serving, but together they can increase your cholesterol intake, especially since many of those items contain other ingredients that can be high in cholesterol and saturated fat, such as butter or cream.
On the plus side, eggs have many nutritional benefits. They’re a good source of high-quality protein, with relatively few calories (6.3 grams of protein for only 72 calories in a large egg). Eggs also contain vitamins B12 and D, and several essential micronutrients, including choline (important for brain health) and lutein (for eye health).
Bottom line: It’s not necessary to avoid eggs completely, especially if you’re healthy. But eat them in moderation, and try to keep your bigger dietary picture in mind. For instance, swap the sausage, bacon or ham in your quiche for mushrooms, spinach and green or red peppers.
CRACKING THE EGG CODE
Ever wonder what those terms on egg carton labels mean? Consumer Reports provides a quick glossary:
-- Free-range or cage-free: Free-range hens have daily access to the outdoors or are raised outdoors. Cage-free hens aren’t kept in cages, but are allowed to roam free in large barns or yards.
-- Omega-3: Hens were given feed that included items like flax, marine algae or fish oils to boost omega-3 fatty acid levels in their eggs.
-- Organic: Hens had minimal exposure to antibiotics, commercial fertilizers, fungicides, growth hormones, herbicides and pesticides. Eggs with the "USDA organic" seal follow production guidelines set by the Department of Agriculture National Organic Program. Because it costs more to produce eggs that way, they are usually more expensive than conventional eggs.
-- Pasteurized: Eggs were heated to destroy bacteria. After pasteurization, the eggs were covered in a food-grade wax to prevent absorption of cross-contaminants. If you’re worried about using raw eggs in a recipe, you might consider these.
-- Vegetarian: Hens were given only all-grain feed with no animal byproducts or food scraps.