When I hear “designer eggs,” I immediately picture runway models rolling around in couture egg suits. But that’s not quite what designer eggs are. They aren’t beautifully painted Ukrainian eggs either. Rather designer eggs have been nutritionally augmented, usually through the chickens’ diet. The eggs are enriched with nutrients already present in eggs, such as vitamin D, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids, that boost an eggs’ existing nutrients. Most designer eggs are chicken eggs, though some commercially available duck and quail eggs are enriched with omega-3.
“Eggs are good.” “Eggs are bad.” Maybe eggs are just yummy.
If you are old enough, you may remember that sometime in the 1970s, eggs became “bad” for you as they’re high in cholesterol. We need some cholesterol in our diets for digestion, cellular function, and production of hormones. But too much cholesterol (found in fats) can also clog up our blood vessels, which could indeed become problematic. Keep in mind that bloodstream cholesterol doesn’t come from ingested cholesterol in the first place, so the advice that ingested cholesterol is a factor in high cholesterol is particularly misleading. Unfortunately, diet science usually gets boiled down to a good or bad determination for the general public, while the research shows it’s never that black-and-white. Gradually, studies in the early 2000s have detailed how the different kinds of cholesterol (high-density lipids (HDL) and low-density lipids (LDL)) work differently in the body. These studies show that HDL is really quite beneficial. There is now a general consensus that eating eggs doesn’t really raise your blood cholesterol. Unless you have a genetic predisposition toward high cholesterol, you can now enjoy your morning egg, guilt-free.
Enhanced Food and the Lab
Food augmentation, enhancement, or enrichment—whichever label you choose to use—isn’t at all new. Fermentation is a form of food modification that’s been around for thousands of years (think ancient Egypt’s beer and mead). But enhancing foods through lab work is largely a 20th-century development. Enter the omega-3 enriched egg and the search to make what’s sometimes called “nature’s perfect food,” even more perfect. In 1934, Dr. Ethel Margaret Cruickshank, who was researching fatty acids in egg yolks, began to modify yolks to enhance the concentration of mega-3 fatty acids. Her initial research wasn’t pursued until the late 1990s, when Canadian Drs. Sang-Jun Sim and Hoon H. Sunwoo fed hens flax seeds and successfully developed the first designer eggs rich in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Other scientists soon succeeded in creating eggs fortified with omega-3, vitamin D, and vitamin E, by feeding hens linseed, minerals, vitamins, and lutein. Some of the eggs they fashioned contained six times more omega-3 that a 100 gram serving of fish, and three times more vitamin D than unenriched eggs. They were also able to show that the eggs were stable during refrigerated storage and cooking, making the added nutrients bioavailable to the egg consumers.
The addition of omega-3 fatty acids not only provides consumers with enriched eggs, but as Dr. Rajasekaran reported in 2013, it also reduces the cholesterol content of eggs by replacing the saturated fats in the egg yolk with long-chain polyunsaturated fats. Consuming fewer saturated fats is recommended by the American Heart Association and the American Osteopathic Association. Studies from many different countries consistently show that diets with fewer saturated fats result in reduced plasma cholesterol and atherosclerotic cardiac plaque. Additionally, the modern scientific consensus is that it’s the trans fats that cause inflammatory issues in your arteries, not saturated fat. This is why avocados, butter, and lard have all be re-defined as acceptable sources of fat needed for healthy brain function and digestion.
“It’s Never Quite That Simple”
There isn’t just one kind of omega-3 fatty acid. There are several and they come from different sources. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are typically found in oily fish, such as salmon, trout, and sardines, while alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is plentiful in flaxseed, flax oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds, hemp oil, walnuts, and soybeans. DHA and EPA are crucial for the proper development and maintenance of brain cells. ALA seems most beneficial to cardiac health, though it hasn’t been studied quite as extensively as DHA and EPA.
The first commercially produced designer eggs were developed by feeding chickens ALA-rich flaxseed, hempseed, and soybeans. When the hens digest the flax, a small percentage (often less than 1 percent) of the ALA gets broken down into DHA and EPA fatty acids, both of which are transferred to the egg yolk.
Sounds great, right? Feed your chickens some flaxseed and you get omega-3 enhanced eggs. But it isn’t quite that simple. A 2018 study by Dr. Richard Elkin at the University of Pennsylvania showed that hens fed flaxseed oil combined with high oleic acid soybeans — to increase the omega-3 absorption in the egg yolk — actually do not produce such eggs. The omega-3 fatty acids found in those eggs is lower than in eggs from hens fed just a flaxseed supplement.
So what happens if you add fish oil to the chicken feed to increase the amount of DHA and EPA fatty acids in the yolks? A large study of broiler chickens in Hyderabad, India, showed that the laid eggs had increased levels of both ALA and DHA/EPA fatty acids. The study also split the finishing feed, giving 2 percent sunflower oil to one group and 3 percent fish oil to another group, and then evaluating the broiler carcasses for body fat content. The cooked birds were also evaluated by a sensory panel for smell and taste.
The sunflower oil fed carcasses showed 5 percent more body fat (especially abdominal) than the fish oil fed birds. This means that the chickens fed fish oil have decreased levels of saturated body fat and an increase in polyunsaturated fats in the meat. No fishy smells or tastes were detected by the sensory panel with the 3 percent fish oil supplement, though other studies have indicated that supplementing with more than 5 percent fish oil does affect the taste and smell. While “turducken” may be a current culinary fad, fishy chicken has not yet caught on.
To Egg or Not to Egg
You know that egg that you can have for breakfast? Diet researchers still disagree about whether the egg is good for you or not. Dr. Walter Willett’s study shows that moderate egg consumption doesn’t seem to increase the risk of stroke or heart disease (except in people with a strong genetic predisposition for high cholesterol). And the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans doesn’t even include a specific numerical goal for daily cholesterol consumption as previous guidelines did. But some nutritional scientists worry that this view is too simple and sends the wrong message about LDL cholesterol in eggs. Dr. David Spence, a professor of neurology and clinical pharmacology at Western University in London, Ontario, is particularly vocal in pointing out that many of the recent large, eggutrition studies have been partially funded by the Egg Nutrition Center, which is part of the American Egg Board, and they have a vested interest in promoting egg consumption.
Regarding the omega-3 enriched eggs specifically, most nutritionists recommend eating, of all things, fish. The omega-3 enriched eggs that are most commonly available through companies, such as Eggland’s Best and Organic Valley, contain 100 to 150 milligrams of ALA while 3 ounces of salmon provides 1 to 3 grams of DHA and EPA.
To egg or not to egg? That’s up to you based on your own medical history.
Who Really Benefits?
Designer eggs are often twice the price of regular, commercial eggs and frequently marketed to populations who have relatively easy access to other sources of omega-3 through fish and supplements. For most U.S. markets, this makes designer eggs more expensive and a bit faddish. There are, however, other populations that really need the augmented nutrition.
Because eggs are relatively easy to enhance and chickens are pretty straightforward to raise, populations that live in food-poor regions can significantly benefit from consuming them. India is a food paradox. Economic growth has been relatively high in the past decade, but slower progress has been made regarding widespread and consistent nutritional availability. By and large, cereal and non-food crops have been promoted over food crops and animals. Though India’s poverty rate has been significantly reduced by almost half in the last ten years, there are still large areas of food insecurity. Chicken, meat, and egg consumption are both popular and growing in India due to their high protein and relatively low cholesterol content. Feeding hens to produce omega-3 and vitamin-enriched eggs and meat is an incredible benefit to populations that struggle to obtain adequate nutrition in the first place.
Enriched eggs are also useful to populations who don’t have access to cold-water fish, such as salmon, albacore tuna, cod, or halibut, which remain the best sources of omega-3. Dr. I.P. Dike from the Department of Biological Studies at Covenant University in Nigeria has looked at the nutritional benefits to average Nigerians when local farmers supplement their hens with flaxseed. Even though Nigeria has a coastline, access to cold-water fish is extremely limited, and the cost of bulk flaxseed is within reach of many farmer cooperatives. The enriched eggs are a good source of essential nutrients, especially for children who need the fatty acids for early brain development.
Can Small Flock Owners Create Omega-3 Enhanced Eggs?
Technically, yes. You can add omega-3 rich supplements to your chickens’ diet. What you can’t do is market them as omega-3 enriched eggs without being precise about the feed, and getting the eggs lab-tested for omega-3s. You’ll also need to be careful about the supplements. Too much flaxseed can cause thin shells, smaller eggs, and reduced body-weight gain in your birds. It could also affect the taste of the eggs. If you consume too much omega-3, you may compromise your body’s uptake of omega-6 (linoleic acid), which helps your immune system function.
Chicken eggs are amazing little cackleberries of nutrition all on their own. They are still in demand as designer eggs, and as a powerful nutritional for food-poor areas.
Carla Tilghman is the editor of Community Chickens at Ogden Publications, and an avid researcher of all things fowl. In her spare time, she is a textile artist, gardener of herbs and dye plants, and backyard chicken wrangler. You can see her artwork at Lapin Textiles, and her editorial work at Community Chickens.