The Ins and Outs of Eggs: Types, Nutrition, Cholesterol, and Backyard Chickens

I recently moved into a lovely home that includes a chicken coop complete with 3 chickens in the backyard. The idea of affordable, (very) local fresh eggs in the morning was always overshadowed by an assumption that a chicken coop is a great deal of hard work. Turns out I was mistaken; chickens are actually low-maintenance when compared to most of our other domesticated pets. I so enjoy my new-found love for backyard chickens and it is because of this that I feel the need to clarify some myths and misunderstandings about eggs.


Cholesterol in Eggs

Eggs are a great source of affordable protein, but many people are reluctant to consume them due to the popular belief that eggs raise cholesterol levels; therefore increasing our risk for stroke and cardiovascular disease (CVD). 

First of all, a certain amount of cholesterol is healthy and necessary - a basic building block for many chemical messengers in the body, such as vitamin D and sex hormones.

Most of the cholesterol in the human body is synthesized within the body and regulated by the liver. Cholesterol in food can increase your blood cholesterol, but a healthy body should compensate to a certain degree by decreasing the amount of cholesterol synthesized.

A study published in the Medical Science Monitor by Qureshi et al (2007) found no increase in risk of stroke or coronary artery disease and mortality in persons who consumed 1-6 eggs per week when compared to people who consumed 1 egg or less per week. Rong et al (2013) published a meta-analysis in the BMJ that revealed no link between higher egg consumption (up to one per day) and increased risk of coronary heart disease or stroke.

However, the same may not be true for people with Type 2 Diabetes. Another meta-analysis by Shin et al (2013) published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that although egg consumption does not increase risk of cardiovascular disease and cardiac mortality in the general population, it may increase the incidence of type 2 diabetes in the general population and CVD comorbidity in diabetics. I would also be cautious and suggest people with high risk of CVD keep cholesterol-rich egg yolk consumption to a minimum, as the research community is still fairly divided on the issue of whether or not cholesterol from eggs translates into a higher CVD risk.


Egg Labels

In addition to eggs being a significant source of protein (a large egg containing 6g, that’s 12 percent of the Daily Recommended Value), eggs are also a great source for other vitamins and minerals including: vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin A, folate, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, phosphorus, selenium, vitamin K, calcium, and zinc. But what about omega-3 eggs? Are brown eggs more nutritious? Most of us are confused by the various types of eggs and egg-labels available on the market and I hope to “take a crack” at provided some clarity when it comes to shopping for eggs.

Brown vs White Eggs

While some claim brown eggs are more nutritious, this is a myth. The breed of the chicken determines the egg-shell color and nutritionally, there is no difference between the two.

Omega 3

Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids necessary for growth, development, and vision; deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids can play a role in mental illness, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and other health conditions. Common sources of omega-3s are oils, nuts, fish, and flax seed.

The yolks of pastured eggs have a high omega-3 fatty acid content, or hens can be fed a diet of 10% flax seed (or, in some cases, fish oil). In addition to being high in omega-3 fatty acids, flax is also high in protein, vitamins, and minerals. However, too much flax seed can result in fishy tasting eggs. The 2002 Health Canada daily recommended intake for omega-3 fatty acids is 1.6 grams and 1.1 grams daily for men and women respectively. This is equivalent to 6 omega-3 eggs or two fish meals per week.

Cage-free vs. Free-run vs Free-range vs Organic

·      Cage Free: The only requirement is that the hens are not confined to battery cages.

·      Free-run: these hens are allowed to move around in open-concept barns. They may or may not have access to the outdoors and overcrowding may be an issue.

·      Free-range: Chickens have access to the outdoors, their feet able to make actual contact with the ground.

·      Organic: Probably your best bet. Depends on the organic certifying body, but usually requires certain animal welfare standards, the use of organic feed, and no growth hormones or antibiotics.

Pastured Eggs

The term pastured does not have a legal definition or a certification process, but is often used to describe chicken or eggs from hens that have been raised in the outdoors with the opportunity to forage for their food and go back to their hen house at night to roost, nest, and lay eggs.

Karsten H et al. (2010) examined the omega-3 fatty acid, vitamin A and vitamin E content in pastured hens versus hens fed a commercial diet in cages. The study revealed that pastured eggs have twice as much vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids and had a vitamin A concentration that was 38% higher.

You may be able to find pastured eggs at a local farm (don’t be afraid to check out the coop with permission or ask questions) or you may want to consider getting your very own backyard chickens.

 

Backyard Chickens

It may sound silly, but I’m honestly in love with our backyard chickens and the idea of reducing the need for chickens to suffer in confined cages on factory farms. I find it difficult to tell how severe the factory farm conditions are (there is so much contradictory literature available), but I am certain we treat our backyard chickens with the dignity and respect all living creatures deserve.

If you’re considering investing in your very own backyard chickens, the following are a few resources and things to consider to get you started:

Purchasing chickens

Chicks are sold through mail order or can be found in local farm supply outlets. Alternatively, adult birds may be available for adoption at your local humane society or animal control - I was unable to find chickens up for adoption in the Guelph area however. The Big Sky Ranch Sanctuary in Kemptville, Ontario (near Ottawa) may have hens looking for a good home (http://www.bigskyranch.ca/index.html).

City By-Laws for Backyard Poultry and Hens

By-laws will differ from city to city and backyard chickens are unfortunately still illegal in many cities and municipalities. The law in Guelph allowing backyard chickens has been around since 1944, coinciding with the end of World War II. Responding to immigrants who insisted on raising their own poultry as they had always done, Guelph wrote a law to regulate backyard ducks, geese, poultry, and pigeons. Although modified, this law still exists today and the by-law can be found at http://guelph.ca/wp-content/uploads/PoultryBylaw.pdf

Additional things to consider before getting your own chickens:

  • Chickens must have protection from temperature extremes, requiring shelter that is both insulated and well-ventilated.
  • A secure shelter is required to protect them from predators such as raccoons and dogs.
  • Hens will require a coop with an enclosed nesting space to lay their eggs and an elevated roost to allow for perching at night.
  • Access to grass and other vegetation.
  • Chickens require daily attention, you will require help for days when you are away from home.
  • Chickens need a balanced diet, consider a commercially available chicken feed formulated by a nutritionist. Laying hens may require additional calcium if the calcium content of their chicken feed ration is not sufficient. Although chickens like certain fruits, veggies, and grains, some plants are toxic for chickens. Such plants include; potato peels, undercooked beans, and avocado. More information can be found at https://store.aces.edu/ItemDetail.aspx?ProductID=15559.
  • Make sure you keep the chicken coop, feeders, and water clean to prevent disease.

My Favorite Chicken Resource

Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow (1995) is an excellent guide to raising chickens. Includes guidance for everything from choosing a breed to setting up a shelter, poultry health care, and killing, cutting and storing meat birds. A roommate (especially if they go by the name Becca), family member, or friend who is wise in the ways of keeping chickens is always a great resource as well.

Backyard Bok Bok’s

For those of you who are really keen about having chickens but are overwhelmed by the preparation, or for people who would like to try backyard chickens before making the commitment of ownership - Backyard Bok Bok’s is a Guelph-based “rent-a-backyard-chicken-set-up.” It includes delivery and pickup but not chicken-feed. A 2-week 3-chicken rental package currently goes for $329 and other packages are available. http://www.backyardbokboks.com/

 

Restoring Connection to our Food

Writer and journalist Eduardo Galeano once said “Our system is one of detachment”. Building connection has been a strong theme in my life journey so far, connection to people and community as well as to nature and the source of my food. Acts such as growing your own vegetables or collecting eggs from your backyard not only provide for more nutritious and fresh meals, it also provides us with an appreciation for our food and where it comes from.

So next time you eat an egg, take a moment to hold it and appreciate it’s complexity and nutrient value. When purchasing eggs, consider picking them up from a local farmer, or bartering for eggs with someone in your neighborhood or community. And for those of you who are considering backyard chickens: I highly recommend it. The act of becoming more sustainable and asserting the right to grow your own food is a lot of work, but it is easier than I thought and has increased my sense of self-efficacy and empowerment.

 

Disclaimer: The author of this article has no financial interest in any of the links in this article. All links provided above are provided solely as a convenience to you. We are not responsible for any content, materials, or other information found or accessed from any other website.

 

Resources:

Blake, J., Hess, J., & Macklin, K. (2007). Nutrition for Backyard Chicken Flocks. Alabama Cooperative Extension System. https://store.aces.edu/ItemDetail.aspx?ProductID=15559#prettyPhoto

Coulter, L. (2011, March 28). Choose eggs from happy chickens. Queen of Green, David Suzuki Foundation. http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/queen-of-green/2011/03/choose-eggs-from-happy-chickens/

Egg Farmers of Canada (2014). Introduction to the Egg. Get Cracking. http://www.eggs.ca/eggs101/view/4/introduction-to-the-egg

The Human Society of the United States (2012). Adopting and Caring for Backyard Chickens: important considerations before getting hens. http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/chickens/tips/adopting_chickens.html#.U3NqvK1dXWo

Karsten, H., Patterson, P., Stout, R., & Crews, G. (2010). Vitamins A, E and fatty acid composition of the eggs of caged hens and pastured hens.. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, 25(1); 45-54. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=7219036

National Academy of Sciences (2002, Sept). Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino acids. Institute of Medicine. http://www.calgaryhealthregion.ca/publichealth/envhealth/trans_fats/documents/Dietary_Reference_Intake_for_Energy_Carbohydrate.pdf

Qureshi A., Suri, F., Ahmed, S., Nasar, A., Divani, A., & Kirmani, J. (2007). Regular egg consumption does not increase the risk of stroke and cardiovascular diseases. Medical Science Monitor, 13(1); 1-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17179903

Rosenbloom, C (2011, March). Eggs 101. Heart and Stroke Foundation. http://www.heartandstroke.on.ca/site/apps/nlnet/content2.aspx?c=pvI3IeNWJwE&b=5063573&ct=7512525

Rong, Y., Chen, L, Zhu, T., Song, Y., Yu, M., Shan, Z., Sands, A., Ju, F., & Liu, L. (2013). Egg consumption and risk of coronary heart disease and stroke: dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. BMJ, 346; 8539. http://www.bmj.com/content/346/bmj.e8539?view=long&pmid=23295181

Shin, J., Xun, P., Nakamura, Y., & He, K. (2013). Egg consumption in relation to risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes: a systemic review and meta-analysis. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 98(1); 146-159. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/98/1/146.abstract?sid=e5f923b3-04dc-4746-aa9f-353d85807086

Spence, D., Jenkins, D., & Davignon, J. (2010). Dietary cholesterol and egg yolks: Not for patients at risk of vascular disease. The Canadian Journal of Cardiology, 26(9); 336-339. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2989358/

Stephany, M. (2013, Sept 12). Fowl is fair: keeping backyard chickens has a long history in Guelph. Guelph Mercury. http://www.guelphmercury.com/opinion-story/4074168-fowl-is-fair-keeping-backyard-chickens-has-a-long-history-in-guelph/