by Susan Allport
Which came first: the egg or the omega-3 enriched egg?
The omega-3 enriched egg, of course, since all eggs used to be full of omega-3s when the chickens that laid them foraged for a living, scratching and pecking in backyards and farms.
These chickens lived—almost entirely—on green leaves and bugs. And the omega-3s in those green leaves and bugs were concentrated in their eggs for the same reason that omega-3s are concentrated in the breast milk of women: to support the brain development of the next generation—chicks, in this case, instead of infants.
When we humans interrupted this process and ate those eggs, we ingested almost as many omega-3s (including long-chain DHA and EPA) as we would from the same amount of many species of fish. Which—considering the importance of eggs in human diets around the world—must have made quite a contribution to our omega-3 intake.
About Susan Allport
We are excited to introduce Susan Allport as an occasonal contributor to Vital Choices.
Susan is an award-winning writer who contributes to The New York Times and other publications and authored the acclaimed book about omega-3s, titled The Queen of Fats: Why Omega-3s Were Removed from the Western Diet and What We Can Do to Replace Them (University of California Press, 2006).
She is the author of two other highly praised books—The Primal Feast: Food, Sex, Foraging, and Love, and A Natural History of Parenting —and has appeared on Oprah & Friends Radio and NPR’s "Science Friday" and "The Splendid Table".
We’re sure you’ll find her contributions enlightening pleasures to read!
Only recently came the egg as it is laid today, by chickens fed a diet of corn and other grains in large, commercial operations. This egg still has significant amounts of omega-3s, including DHA (it’s still an egg after all), but only a fraction of that in a truly free-range egg.
What a seismic shift this represents in our food supply! How much has this one, altered food contributed to the many illnesses that have been linked to a deficiency of omega-3s?
Artemis Simopoulos, the president of The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, DC and a lioness in the field of omega-3 research, was the first person to recognize this dramatic change in eggs.
In the late 1980s, a few years after Simopoulos first realized that the green leaves of plants contain significant amounts of the parent omega-3 fatty acid ALA (and after a conference in Washington at which she and other attendees realized that the food supply, in general, had shifted away from omega-3 fatty acids and towards omega-6s), she thought back to her childhood in Greece and the chickens that wandered up and down the hills in the search for food.
One of the plants they were eating was purslane, she knew, a plant she had already shown to be especially rich in ALA. And so she had the idea of comparing the eggs of these free ranging chickens with chickens fed a commercial diet.
Simopoulos knew just where to find such eggs: on her family’s farm on the southwestern tip of the Peloponnesus where chickens forage for themselves and are, rarely, if ever, fed. On her next trip back to Greece, she collected some of these eggs and boiled them for five minutes before packing them in her luggage and carrying them back to the United States, to a laboratory at the National Institutes of Health. “You can’t bring uncooked food into the country” as Simopoulos told me recently.
This was the very first time that eggs produced under completely natural conditions had ever been analyzed, Simopoulos also told me. And the first time they had been compared with commercial eggs.
The results are not surprising, given what the two sets of birds were eating. But they are still astonishing given the enormous health benefits of eating a diet rich in omega-3s. Simopoulos’ Greek egg contained about 300 milligrams of omega-3s, including 112 milligrams of DHA. A commercial or supermarket egg had less than 30 milligrams of omega-3s and about 19 milligrams DHA.
The ratio of polyunsaturated fatty acids to saturated fats and monounsaturated fatty acids to saturated fats was the same in the two eggs. What differed—greatly—was the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s: a healthful 1.3 to 1 in the Greek egg and a grossly imbalanced 19.9 to1 in the commercial egg.
Simopoulos got similar results with the six different batches of eggs she brought back with her from Greece (at six different times of year). Her findings, published in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1989, gave birth to the first commercial omega-3 enriched eggs when George Bass, an egg producer from Bogotá, Columbia asked for her advice in setting up a new egg operation in Hubbardston, Massachusetts.
Simopoulos recommended that Bass try to replicate the diet of a chicken in the wild by feeding his chickens a mixture that contained flax seed and fish meal. The first Country Hen eggs to go on the market contained about 170 milligrams omega-3s. Bass continued to fiddle with his feed until his eggs now boast 300 mg of omega-3s; the same as the original Greek egg.
Bass’ exact feed formula is proprietary, but it contains two types of fish meal and flax seed, as well as corn and soy splits. It costs about 3 times as much as commercial feed, a cost that is reflected in the cost of the eggs and has inspired at least one customer to ask if Bass feeds his chickens champagne and caviar.
Two decades later, there are a host of omega-3 enriched eggs on the grocery shelves, a good thing, of course, but consumers are understandably confused by the widely varying prices and omega-3 content. Perhaps it will help them to go back to the egg that came first, the Greek egg, the original omega-3 enriched egg. And to understand that even chickens fed a commercial diet of corn and soy will have some DHA in their eggs (18 milligrams according to the most recent USDA nutrient data).
My recommendation is to find an egg whose taste you enjoy (always very important!) that has as close to 300 milligrams of omega-3s, and/or 100 milligrams of DHA, as your pocket book will allow. Or to buy your eggs from a local farmer who understands the importance of what the chickens are eating. These eggs cost more, but they don’t carry the price tag of a diet rich in omega-6s—and deficient in 3s. Consumers concerned about the welfare of the chickens can also choose cage-free or free-range eggs.
Eggs are having a renaissance these days as organizations such as the American Heart Association back down from former recommendations limiting egg consumption (recommendations that never had good scientific justification). But as eggs resume their rightful place in the American diet, let’s not bring back just any old egg. Let’s bring back the original, omega-3 enriched egg.
(By the way, an added benefit of enriching the diets of chickens with feeds containing significant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids is that these chickens are healthier than others: they have better immune systems and fewer illnesses.)