Since the 1960s, many Americans have avoided eating eggs based on a few crude studies that linked dietary cholesterol to heart disease. But 40 years of more careful research has exonerated eggs; evidence now shows they have little or no impact on heart disease risk.
This research spurred the inclusion of eggs as part of the recommended healthy eating patterns in the latest edition of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and has opened the door to studying other nutritional and health benefits of eggs.
Results of those studies indicate a bright future for eggs, not only in the United States, but especially for children and adults in the developing world.
In the past decade, scientific advancements have shown the benefits of eggs on eye health, cognitive performance and weight loss, to name a few. We know now that eggs are a nutrient-dense food containing protein, vitamins and minerals, as well as the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin. In fact, eggs are one of the only dietary sources of choline, an essential nutrient for brain development and memory, and under-consumed by over 90% of Americans. Once defined only by their cholesterol content, eggs are finally being recognized as a nutrition powerhouse.
Lutein and zeaxanthin have been long associated with eye health; studies have shown reductions in the risk of cataracts, night-blindness, and age-related macular degeneration. Now emerging science has linked these compounds with improved cognition in older adults and academic performance in children.
Recent work conducted at Purdue University demonstrated that combining eggs with green salads increased the absorption of vitamin E seven-fold. In addition, a meta-analysis of research conducted on eggs through 2015 concluded there is no association between eggs and increased risk of coronary heart disease. In fact, the study, published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition (JACN), found that eating an egg a day decreased the risk of stroke by 12 percent.
One of the most exciting and impactful new areas of research has been in infants and children in communities with limited access to high-quality protein and essential nutrients. For example, eating just one egg a day improved growth and reduced signs of under-nutrition among young children in Ecuador, according to results of a landmark study released this past summer. The research, conducted by child nutrition expert Dr. Lora Iannotti at Washington University in St. Louis, received international attention because it showed that eggs significantly increased height of young children and reduced the prevalence of underweight by 74 percent.
Results such as these showcase the potential for eggs to improve nutritional status and address hunger around the world. Indeed, there are several studies underway in Africa and Asia evaluating the impact of increased accessibility to eggs on growth and overall health in nutritionally-vulnerable children and pregnant women. Their nutrition package, as well as their affordability, utility (i.e., easy to store, prepare, etc.) and sustainability, make eggs an appealing solution to addressing malnutrition in resource-poor communities.
Here at home, eggs can also increase intakes of key nutrients while allowing families to stay within tight food budgets. However, results from a recent study published in the scientific journal Nutrients shows that more work is needed to increase egg consumption among low- income and nutritionally vulnerable groups in the U.S. The decade-long study, based on 2001-2012 data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, identifies an opportunity for improving nutrition outcomes among people who are food insecure and among participants in the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
As a result, researchers at USDA are now conducting studies to determine how incorporating eggs into everyday diet patterns can help improve diet quality among nutritionally vulnerable populations, and how changes in retail egg prices affect food-purchasing decisions for families.
Few other foods have made the evolution from seemingly unwholesome decades ago to an affordable and complete source of nutrition for adults and children from every corner of the globe. Eggs truly hold promise as a food of the future.
About the Author: Tia Rains, PhD, is the Executive Director at the Egg Nutrition Center, the leading organization in research and education related to eggs.