American eggs are often said to be inferior to those sold in the rest of the world ― their yolks are often paler and they require refrigeration because of the way they’re processed.
But how does the nutritional value of U.S. eggs compare with eggs in other countries?
The answer to that question is a convoluted one, dependent on a variety of factors that involve each country’s overall food production system and the number of people being fed by it.
That being said, a general answer is that mass-produced eggs in America are just as nutritious as mass-produced eggs in other countries. However, the scale of mass production in the United States is larger than elsewhere in the world. Here’s how it works and how it affects eggs.
Size and distance matter
The American food system is designed to feed a massive population of over 300 million people. Egg production is intricately related to the overall food system.
“The goal of egg production in large scale facilities is to get as many eggs produced in as short of a period of time as possible, get them onto refrigerated trucks and into warehouses where they’re redistributed to grocery stores,” explained Drake Patten, the owner of Hurricane Hill, a 48-acre conservation farm in Western Cranston, Rhode Island, that also produces eggs.
Not only is the U.S. home to a large number of people, but folks are spread across vast geographical areas. Food, therefore, needs to travel long distances.
“That’s a lot of time for an egg” to travel, Patten explained. “In these high levels of production, the goal is to clean the eggs and keep them very cool.”
Given the number of chickens in each barn (close to 2,000 in some places, according to Patten), it is virtually impossible to check the health of every single bird, and many lay eggs with shells that become soiled.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires producers to wash eggs with warm water at least 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the internal temperature of the eggs ― at a minimum of 90 degrees. That process cleans the shell, but also removes the exterior cuticle, “which is a natural barrier to bacteria and spoilage,” explained Michael Ruhlman, the author of food-related books, including ”Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America.” Scouring off the shell’s protective layer means that mass-produced eggs in the United States must be refrigerated until usage.
In most European countries, washing eggs is illegal for producers, which is why the products aren’t refrigerated in supermarkets or homes.
Some American farmers, including Patten, skip the hot-wash.
“If you buy a supermarket egg and you get an egg from my farm, you boil it and then you want to crack it open, it’s incredibly hard to get the shell off [my] free-range eggs, but easy to get it off a store-bought egg,” Patten said. “That’s because there’s a really big air pocket in store-bought eggs.”
Mass production comes at a cost
There are a few aspects of mass production ― in the U.S. and elsewhere ― that influence the look and taste of eggs.
A chicken’s diet is of utmost importance. Generally, in large facilities, the animals are fed grain and given supplements and antibiotics.
Large farms “are not feeding them quality grain,” Patten said. “They’re feeding them cheap grain ― a lot of corn, a lot of things to just keep them producing.”
Ruhlman pointed out that yolk color “is determined by what the chicken is eating.” A high-quality diet “intensifies the nutrients in the eggs.”
To maximize production, most large producers keep barns lighted 24 hours a day, because chickens lay more eggs when exposed to greater light.
Access to the outdoors also affects eggs. “My birds are constantly getting a diverse diet,” Patten said, mentioning grains, greens and “the stuff that’s outside.”
“That’s going to make a more nutritious egg,” Patten said. A vitamin D supplement, for example, “is very different than going out in the sun.”
As a result of these practices, mass-produced eggs have paler yolks than those produced on smaller farms. “The deep yellow yolk is the most nutritious and richest flavor in the egg,” Patten explained. “And it is a very different color if you go to a random New York City diner and you get eggs. There, they’re kind of the color of hail, almost a yellow sticky color, like a legal pad color.”
Shell color is another difference between mass-produced eggs and those from small farms. Most people are used to seeing white or brown shells on supermarket shelves. Patten’s chickens produce a rainbow of hues.
“The breeds that have been bred historically to create the highest level of egg production are pretty boring, to be honest,” which is why white and brown eggs dominate, she explained. “You can literally get eggs that go from pink to olive green to chocolate brown. That just has to do with the breed.”
Do Europeans do it better?
“If it’s mass produced, it’s probably just as unhealthy as the mass produced food here in America,” Ruhlman said, explaining that differences in eggs between the United States and, say, Italy, are likely very few. However, “Europeans have access to higher quality food in general, if they want,” he said. That’s because the scale of mass production is smaller, and most people have greater access to small farmers.
“I wouldn’t say that a European egg is necessarily better,” Patten said. “But where that egg comes from, whether it’s in Europe or America, is likely to give you a better egg.”
Patten also mentioned the U.S. food regulatory system. “People do get sick,” she said. “In Europe that happens and [they] don’t have a draconian response to it. But Americans tend to change all the laws when one thing happens.” Hot-washing eggs during production was meant to prevent the development of salmonella, for example, but it may curtail nutrition.
Can we improve?
“Here’s the answer to how to have a good egg: Buy from your farmers market or local farm,” Patten said.
Of course, that isn’t an easy solution for all, given the vastness of the country and the distance to markets. “We also have food deserts in many of our big cities,” Patten said. “To change that, you’d really have to change industry practice, and that would require a pretty big sea change in American food thinking.”
Shopping at farmers markets is also generally pricier than the average supermarket.
All that taken into account, consumers can strive to be better simply by buying better food.
“I think the way to get better eggs is to buy better eggs,” Ruhlman said. “Because when we buy anything, we’re asking for more of it.”