If you're tired of oatmeal and craving an omelet, take heart: The incredible, edible egg, once vilified as a source of artery-clogging, heart-disease-causing cholesterol, has rolled back into favor in recent years.
The latest research isn't an excuse to eat them soft-boiled or scrambled three times a day or to gorge on quiche, but it does show that healthy people who eat an egg a day are not at greater risk for heart disease. (Diabetics and people whose bodies don't process cholesterol properly need to be careful.)
The prime vindicator of the egg is a Harvard University study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1999. Re-searchers followed 120,000 nurses and other medical professionals for a lengthy period of time and found no relationship between egg consumption and heart disease or stroke.
The news has been good for the egg industry. According to the American Egg Board, the average American ate 253.2 eggs in 2001, compared with 234 eggs in 1991, when health and safety scares kept consumers away. (The figure includes the eggs in cake mixes, premium ice cream, meatloaf and other foods.)
Still, with most of us eating cereal for breakfast, not scrambled eggs, per capita egg consumption is nothing like it once was; in 1945, the average American ate 402 eggs a year.
According to the egg board, eggs are considered second only to mother's milk in the amount and quality of protein they provide.
"Eggs are one of nature's most complete foods," says Nancy Ferriello, a registered dietitian and certified nutritionist in Westport, Conn. "They contain high-quality protein as well as all the essential amino acids, plus minerals and all the vitamins, with the exception of Vitamin C."
But keep in mind, says Ferriello, that a large egg also contains about 215 milligrams of cholesterol. Daily egg eaters should cut back on meats, dairy, baked goods and other cholesterol-rich foods if they want to stay within the less-than-300-milligrams per day recommended by the American Heart Association.
Meanwhile, eggs themselves are getting healthier, as some companies modify their hens' diets to produce eggs with less cholesterol and less saturated fat, plus Vitamin E and healthy fatty acids called omega-3s. Chances are you've just begun to notice more of these "designer" or "value-added" eggs at the grocery store.
Manette Richardson, director of nutrition services for Egg-land's Best, says the company's 18 egg producers across the country feed their hens a patented vegetarian diet that includes rice bran, canola oil and kelp.
The result is an egg with 180 milligrams cholesterol instead of 215, 25 percent less saturated fat, 100 milligrams of omega-3 and a price tag eight to 10 cents more than a generic egg. The hens are also fed a yellow corn product that produces a richer, darker yolk that is high in lutein, an antioxidant that promotes eye health and may help prevent macular degeneration.
Richardson says the all-vegetarian diet can lower the risk of salmonella poisoning, which hens can contract from diets that include meat scraps, bone meal and other byproducts of food processing.
Another company, Egg Innovations, has quadrupled its business in the past five years with products that include cage-free, organic, omega-3 and vegetarian eggs. Egg Innovations is also moving toward a "free farm" environment in which hens are treated humanely and not confined to cages. The hens are fed a healthy, controlled diet that includes flax seed and vitamin E.
"When you take out the byproducts, the hormones and the antibiotics and let the birds perform in a better environment, you'll get a considerably better product," says Sam Casamento, the company's vice president of sales and marketing.
According to Casamento, the company's top three markets are California, New York City and New England, and the typical consumer is a 45-year-old woman with above-average income and education. Egg Innovations products cost $2.49 a dozen. A dozen commodity eggs are about 89 cents.
Jennifer K. Covino is a contributor to The Stamford Advocate, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
Inside the shell
Here are some egg facts:
* The color of an egg's shell, brown or white, is determined by the breed of the hen. It's not related to quality, nutrients, flavor or cooking characteristics. Because brown egg layers are slightly larger birds and require more feed, their eggs often cost more.
* Keep eggs in the center of the refrigerator, not in the dimples on the door where temperatures can fluctuate. Store eggs in their original cardboard cartons so they don't absorb odors from other foods.
* Cook egg yolks until firm, and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly to prevent illness from bacteria. Play it safe, but put it in perspective. According to the American Egg Board (www.aeb.org), the average American will come across a contaminated egg only once every 84 years.