Are they all they're cracked up to be? 'Designer eggs': so many choices and health claims

US - Which came first: the chicken or the omega 3- and lutein-enriched egg from a vegetarian, cage-free hen?
calendar icon 3 April 2007
clock icon 4 minute read

The answer is not complicated, though standing in front of your supermarket case sorting through claims of healthier eggs from happier chickens certainly is. On top of the confusion, at about $3-$3.50 a dozen, the price of these "designer eggs" is no mere chicken feed.

Introduced broadly about 10 years ago, specialty eggs came to market after farmers learned how to feed hens a specialized diet to change the nutritional value of eggs.

Instead of commercial feed, which contains tallow, lard and ground bones, the chickens are fed flax oil, fish oil and bioengineered algae, among other things, to increase the amount of vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids in the eggs they produce. Vitamin E is an antioxidant that fights cell-damaging "free radicals," and omega-3 fatty acids are thought to reduce heart disease and cancer risks.

Some hens are also fed marigold petals in their feed to produce lutein in their eggs, a vitamin that may reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration, a major cause of vision loss in those older than 60.

No long-term science yet

"You just feed the hen. That's the beauty of it. The hen will only put in the egg what's beneficial to the development of the chick," says Donald McNamara, a former professor of nutrition at the University of Arizona and now the executive director of the Egg Nutrition Center in Washington, D.C.

So is this science or merely a shell game?

Lorraine Danowski, a registered dietitian at Stony Brook University, cites a study published in 2000 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in which participants as part of their diet ate one egg a day, either designer or regular, for eight weeks. At the end of two months, all the participants who ate the designer eggs saw a marked increase in vitamin E, lutein and omega-3 fatty acids in their blood levels.

What is still unknown, Danowski notes, is whether these compounds will reduce or eliminate health ailments in the long term. Still, Danowski feeds her own family designer eggs distributed by Eggland's Best, a national brand available at most supermarkets.

"I like the fact that the omega 3's are higher," she says. "I don't worry about the cholesterol because I don't cook enough [with eggs] for it to be a problem."

Danowski touches on the bad reputation eggs have gotten over the years for their cholesterol content (215 milligrams in a regular, large egg) and their saturated fat content (1.5 grams). The American Heart Association recommends that dietary cholesterol be limited to 300 milligrams or less a day.

"If you don't have a cholesterol problem or a strong history of heart disease, eggs are a real cheap source of protein," Danowski says.


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