Your Guide to Buying the Best Eggs

Humans have eaten eggs for millennia, and now nutritional authorities are reinstating them as a valuable part of the diet. Here’s a guide to buying the best eggs.

| March/April 2002

  • Red chard contrasts prettily with the bright yellow of farm eggs and the black of a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet.
  • Eggs, milk, and sugar are an irresistible combination in custard.
  • Tangy pickled eggs should be served cold with fresh-ground pepper and kosher salt.

  • Photography by Joe Coca

Like the fox and the weasel, the coyote and the lizard, humans were probably once nest-robbers. But as early as 500 b.c., we became keepers of hens and protectors of eggs. Long before Christianity and Easter, eggs were primally linked to spring. Chickens, left to their own devices, naturally molt in winter, losing their feathers to grow a new set, and drastically decline in egg production. When the light and the greenery return, so do the eggs—a spring abundance that must have taxed early chefs’ ingenuity. The Romans invented custard; the French, meringue; the Chinese, tea-steeped “thousand-year-old’’ eggs; the Russians, painted and bejeweled ones.

Eggs have made a comeback in the last decade. Once criticized for being rich in dreaded cholesterol, they were ushered out of heart-healthy diets, replaced by whipped and dehydrated substitutes. With new thinking on the importance of dietary fats and a correction in how much cholesterol they contain, eggs are back by the dozen. Even the American Heart Association says it’s okay to consume as many as four whole eggs per week and unlimited egg whites.

Along with that cholesterol (215 mg per egg), eggs pack a tidy package of vitamins, protein, and taste. The average egg contains 317.5 IU of vitamin A, 24.5 mg of vitamin D, 6.2 g of protein, 24.5 mg of calcium, 89 mg of phosphorous, 5 mg of magnesium, and 23.5 mg of folic acid, among other nutrients. Nutritionists measure protein quality based on how high a percentage is usable by the human body—also known as bioavailability. Eggs have the highest percentage of bioavailable protein of any food except breast milk.

Giving hens a life

Years ago, when the animal-rights movement exposed the real life of a commercial laying hen, some people swore off eggs—or changed to eggs from cage-free hens when they could find them. When the nutritional reputation of eggs rebounded, the demand for humanely raised and other specialty eggs got an extra bounce. Last year, organic egg farmers who are members of CROPP, a producer’s coop in Wisconsin and nearby states, doubled their sales—despite the fact that cage-free conditions for hens haven’t been proven to affect an egg’s nutrient content.

“We feel it’s really important that consumers and farmers support outside access for hens,” says John Marquardt, egg pool coordinator for CROPP. Plus, he adds, buying eggs from diversified family farms helps keep that land in family hands.

These days, chances are good you can buy free-range eggs and nutrient-enhanced eggs at most supermarkets. Be aware, however, that they are two distinctly different types of eggs. Free-range or free-roam refers to how the hens are kept; nutrient-enhanced refers to a special diet fed to hens. Such eggs may be certified to contain more vitamin E or other nutrients and less cholesterol, but the hens who lay them may be caged or uncaged.

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