Friday, March 4, 2011

Are organic eggs a shell game?

Those of us who purchase eggs are offered three main choices: 1) organic eggs;2)free-range eggs, which are also often organic; 3) regular eggs. Organic eggs are often touted for their nutritional superiority over “normal” eggs. To qualify as organic, eggs must be derived from hens that are fed organic feed. Such hens are not allowed to be fed animal byproduct feed, or feed that is derived from genetically modified organisms (GMO) , often called “Frankenfood.” Organic hens are also never provided with antibiotics, except for emergency purposes, such as disease outbreaks. Another advantage of organic eggs is that the chickens that produce such eggs are treated far more humanly compared to eggs produced from chickens on so-called factory farms. In fact, a law was recently passed in California that now prohibits many of the cruel practices that were often used in such factory chicken production, such as crowding of hens in small boxes, and so on.Interestingly, lower stress in chickens actually produces eggs that are of superior quality. One way to reduce stress in chickens is to let them roam freely, rather than being constantly imprisoned in small boxes. The eggs produced by such free roaming birds are appropriately labeled “free range.”  To permit such roaming, small doors are installed on barns, allowing the birds to come and go as they please. On the other hand, one fact not often publisized is that male chicks born on organic or free-range farms are discarded and immediately killed by lethal gas because they don’t produce eggs. This fact tends to temper the otherwise human practices common on such farms.

In a new study conducted by researchers from the Agricultural Research Service, both conventional and organic eggs were accessed for quality, and no differences were found. The main difference between eggs was found between white and brown eggs. Brown eggs weighed more than white eggs, but white eggs  had a higher percentage of total solids and crude fat.  Other than that, there were no significant differences between the eggs. The study examined cage-free, traditional, free-roaming, pasteurized, nutritionally-enhanced, and fertile eggs. Specialty eggs, such as those labeled free-roaming, organic, and cage-free, as well as those that are nutritionally-enhanced, such as with omega-3 fatty acids, are considerably more expensive compared to traditional eggs. But this study says there is little or no differences between eggs. Should you pay extra for the specialty eggs?

I’ve seen other studies indicating that free-range eggs are nutritionally superior to traditional eggs, and those with nutritional enhancement show better balances of fats in the eggs, such as higher omega-3 fat levels. This could be important if you avoid eating fatty fish sources of omega-3, or refuse to take fish oil supplements. In addition, I buy free-range eggs because I’ve had the sad experience to research how chickens are treated on egg factory farms, and trust me when I say that such treatment falls way beyond the inhumane category. For that reason alone, I would continue to purchase free-range eggs. Now if we could just do something to spare those poor little male chicks on organic farms, that would be gratifying and humane, too.

Jones DR, et al. Physical quality and composition of retail eggs.Poultry Science 2010;89:in press.

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