For at least two decades the message has been simple: Eggs are bad news for the heart. But lately the egg taboo has begun to crack. There's a growing consensus among medical experts that eggs and dietary cholesterol in general may not be so evil after all. The egg industry has even developed new "good" eggs that are higher in nutrients or lower in fat and cholesterol.

After decades of plummeting popularity, egg consumption has been inching back up. The average American now consumes 235 eggs per year, including the eggs in prepared foods like bread and cake. 

But is it really okay to let the egg back into your life? Here are answers to some basic questions. 

Q. Say "egg," and people think "cholesterol." What's the correlation? 

A. Eggs do contain a lot of cholesterol: one large egg has 213 mg, 71 percent of the government's recommended Daily Value. But dietary cholesterol has less to do with blood cholesterol than people think. Only about 15 percent of blood cholesterol comes from dietary cholesterol; the rest is manufactured in the body from the saturated fat we eat. When healthy people eat more cholesterol than they need, their bodies absorb less from food or produce less. 

Saturated fat has the biggest influence over blood cholesterol, and each egg contains only 1.5 gm--low compared to other sources of animal protein (an ounce of Cheddar has 6 gm, for instance). Adding one or two eggs a day to a diet low in saturated fat raises cholesterol levels only slightly, if at all. "If you don't have a problem with cholesterol, you don't need to worry about eating eggs as part of a diet low in saturated fat," says endocrinologist Robert Knopp, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. 

There is one caveat: if your cholesterol levels are high, your body's controls are out of whack and your doctor may advise you to limit egg intake. 

Q. I'm watching my weight. Can I still eat eggs? 

A. Absolutely. A large (1.75 ounce) egg contains less than 76 calories (59 in the yolk and 17 in the white) and 5 gm of fat (all in the yolk). Raise these numbers slightly for an extra-large (2 ounce) egg and a jumbo (2.3 ounce) egg. 

Q. Are egg substitutes more healthful? 

A. Egg substitutes, which typically consist of egg whites, vegetable oil, color and flavoring, are cholesterol-free, which makes them a great alternative for people with high blood cholesterol. Another option is a new product called Eggology, which consists of liquid egg whites only. While Eggology is being marketed to bodybuilders, it's a convenience for anyone who doesn't want to bother cracking and separating eggs
(to mail-order, call 888-NO-YOLKS). 

But there is a downside to any egg substitute. When you toss out the yolk, you also trash 40 percent of the protein and much of the vitamin and mineral content of the egg, notes Kenneth N. Hall, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. "As long as you don't have a problem with cholesterol, real eggs are usually the better nutritional bet," he explains. 

Q. What about enriched eggs? 

A. Egg producers have discovered that they can alter an egg's nutrient content by modifying the hens' feed. There are now a number of newfangled eggs available regionally, including Good News Eggs (with twice as much folic acid as regular eggs), Eggstasy (with 25 percent less fat and 17 percent less cholesterol) and EggsPlus (with each egg providing 200 mg of omega-3 fatty acids and 20 percent of the Daily Value for vitamin E--heart-healthy nutrients that are only minimally found in regular eggs). 

Still, experts note that these nutritional advantages may not merit the cost, up to twice as high. A regular large egg contains 23 mcg of folic acid, for example; doubling that amount doesn't get you much closer to the
400 mcg you need daily. A better bet: wash down your egg with orange juice, which delivers 164 mcg of folic acid per cup. 

Q. Why eat eggs at all? 

A. Eggs deliver top-quality protein as well as many other nutrients. Two large eggs supply the following amounts of the Daily Value: protein (20 percent); iron (8 percent); riboflavin (30 percent); and vitamins B12 (16 percent), E (6 percent) and D (12 percent). What's more, eggs are easy to digest and cost only about a dime each. 

Q. What's the difference between chicken, duck and quail eggs? Between organic, free-range and regular eggs? 

A. Ounce for ounce, duck and quail eggs contain roughly twice as much cholesterol as chicken eggs. There's no nutritional difference between organic eggs (produced by poultry raised on organic feed), free-range eggs (from birds raised outside or with daily access to the outdoors) and regular eggs. 

Q. Are brown eggs more nutritious? 

A. No. Shell color is determined by the breed of the hen and has nothing to do with an egg's nutritional value, quality or flavor. 

Q. What's the latest news on eggs and salmonella? 

A. Salmonella enteritidis is still a threat. In healthy people, this bacteria causes gastrointestinal upset for several days; for the elderly or those with weakened immunity, it can be fatal. While incidence slightly declined in the Northeast from 1991 to 1994 (from about 9 cases per 100,000 people down to 7), it more than tripled in the Pacific states, mainly California (from roughly 2 per 100,000 up to 7). 

There is some good news. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with the egg industry, has developed a salmonella safety program that involves inspecting poultry, disinfecting hen houses and tracing salmonella outbreaks to the source. When tested in Pennsylvania, the program decreased the number of infected hen houses from 38 percent to 13 percent. The industry is in the process of setting up similar programs nationwide. 

On another positive note, scientists at Purdue University in Indiana have discovered a way to pasteurize fresh eggs in the shell via low-temperature heating, thus greatly reducing any salmonella risk. These safer eggs should hit test markets by the end of the year--good news for Caesar salad fans. Expect to spend about 25 cents more per dozen. 

In the meantime, know that while the danger of salmonella is real, it's statistically remote. It's estimated that only 1 out of every 10,000 eggs will have contamination. (You're no safer with brown, organic or free-range eggs, by the way.) And if you keep your eggs refrigerated and cook them until the whites have set and the yolks are no longer runny, you can eat them without worry. 

Julia Califano is a freelance writer based in Hoboken, New Jersey. 

Elaine Corn is the author of four cookbooks, including 365 Ways to Cook Eggs (HarperCollins) and the recent Now You're Cooking for Company (Harlow & Ratner). 


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