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article imagePremium eggs are more expensive, but are they healthier?

By Igor I. Solar     Jul 15, 2010 in Food
Athens - Consumers can chose between factory, free-range and organic eggs with a price that vary according to the perceived benefits of getting a healthier product. But are a $3.99 a dozen organic eggs healthier and safer than a $1.69 a dozen factory product?
According to recently study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are differences between eggs relating to biochemical characteristics, but those are small and in some cases the eggs of different production systems are indistinguishable. Where there is a significant difference is that often factory eggs are safer.
The study, led by food technologist Deana Jones, did not explore the question of which egg-laying conditions were better for the hens.
Most egg laying chickens are crowded in wire battery cages which are lined up in rows and stacked in...
Most egg laying chickens are crowded in wire battery cages which are lined up in rows and stacked in tiers.
Farm Sanctuary
There is little doubt about that. Factory hens carry out their function confined in battery cages, which leave them crowded and nearly immobilized. Free-range and organic chickens have different degrees of freedom to move about and are mostly fed higher-quality feed. Obviously, free-roaming and organic egg-laying hens have a better life.
Thus, Jones and her colleagues focused their research on the actual properties of the eggs to find out if a happier hen turned out a better, healthier product. To do that, they used a value known as “the Haugh Unit” developed by food technologist Raymond Haugh in 1937. This value is a correlation between egg weight and the height of the thick albumen, and is considered to be the "gold standard" of interior egg quality determination.
The white of an egg contains most of the protein; it's made of two fractions of albumen. The thin portion is the watery fluid that runs farthest from the yolk when the egg is cracked; the thick albumen is the more viscous fluid that stays closer to the middle around and over the yolk. An egg is more nutritious when it has a larger fraction of thick albumen after being cracked on a surface with a temperature between 7 and 15.5°C. Jones study showed results, in Haugh units, that ranged from 66.67 for free-range and omega-3- enhanced eggs to 84.42 for regular white factory eggs. Based on these values, according to the USDA Standards for shell eggs, free-range and omega-3- enhanced eggs get a Grade A, and regular factory-eggs get a better AA grade. However, the levels of total solids and crude fat were higher in the free-range and Omega-3-enhanced white eggs.
That answers some of the questions on egg nutrition quality. When looking into safety of eggs in connection with production systems the research has shown that there is little or no difference in the presence of antibiotics in eggs at the retail level, regardless of how hens are maintained. The main reason is that egg-laying hens are not routinely treated with antibiotics, though they may be treated if they are sick. In those cases, the eggs cannot be marketed until the drugs have cleared their systems.
The problem comes when the study involves environmental contaminants. In this regard, the factory eggs are safer. Research in both the U.S. and the European Union has shown that free-range chickens may have higher levels of PCBs. This is because they get out and peck almost anywhere. According to Peter Holt, a USDA microbiologist: "There was a study in California of a free-range or organic farm with a wood-processing facility nearby… the chickens there had 100 times the PCB level of battery-cage chickens." “A Brazilian study found something similar with DDT, even though the pesticide, which is slow to degrade, hadn't been used in the area in nine years. You really have to know the history of the land before you can be sure it's safe," Holt says.
Another aspect to consider when it comes to price of brown versus white eggs is that brown shell eggs are not better than white ones. The color of an egg depends on the breed of hen, and if brown eggs are more expensive is not related to its nutritional quality, but is mostly based on the cost of production. Brown-shell egg laying hens require extra feed compared to the breeds that lay white-shell eggs.
Egg production is a big industry. In Canada there are about 1,050 regulated egg operations with a total egg-laying flock of almost 19 million hens producing about 5.2 billion eggs annually. However, this is relatively minor compared to the size of the industry in the USA. The national laying flock size in the United States is about 280 million hens laying about 78 billion eggs annually.
More about Egg industry, Usda-ars, Food quality, Food safety
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