The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Americans are on track to eat the most eggs in nearly a half-century

Eggs from Lohmann Brown chickens are sorted inside a barn at Meadow Haven Farm, a certified organic family run farm, in Sheffield, Ill., in August 2015. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)
Placeholder while article actions load

Americans are devouring eggs in numbers not seen in nearly five decades — about 279 per year per person, government forecasts show — continuing a four-year trajectory.

The recent resurgence of eggs — hard boiled, sunny side up or whatever the recipe calls for — follows recent shifts in nutrition guidance from the federal government and an evolving understanding of cholesterol in the American diet.

Egg consumption per capita increased more than 6 percent in 2016, the same full year under which the government dropped its caution about eating such high-cholesterol foods,as shrimp, lobster and eggs. The food recommendations were part of an influential nutrition advice book that the federal government updates every five years, to help Americans eat healthier. But the newest version of the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” contained a striking change: it dropped a restriction on dietary cholesterol, a limit that had defined public health messaging for nearly 40 years.

The new guidelines track the changing views of many nutritionists, who now believe that eating cholesterol-laden foods may not significantly affect the cholesterol levels of healthy adults, or increase their risk of heart disease. Eggs are nutrient-dense, according to federal guidelines, and are grouped with lean meats, poultry, seafood, legumes and nuts as a healthy source of protein. The American Heart Association recommends eating eggs, poultry or meat eight to nine times a week, or one egg or two egg whites in a single serving.

According to the research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans reached the height of their egg consumption at the conclusion of World War II, averaging 404, or more than one a day, in 1945. It bottomed out at 229 in 1992, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Bloomberg earlier reported on the increase in U.S. egg production.

“This idea that eggs are healthy is really what’s driving this increase in consumption,” said Jesse Laflamme, the chief executive of Pete and Gerry’s Organics, a free-range egg producer. Laflamme pointed to other factors that have moved consumers to eat more eggs: their low cost compared with meat, the unprocessed nature of organic, free-range eggs, and the feeling of fullness that eating eggs can create.

Brigitte Zeitlin, a registered dietitian who owns a private nutrition practice in New York City, said she recommends eating eggs regularly because they are a lean source of protein that can promote heart health. Protein-heavy diets like Paleo and Whole 30 have boosted the prominence of eggs, she said, along with a growing awareness that “eating healthy fats doesn’t make you fat,” like the kind found in egg yolks, salmon, and olive oil. Eggs are also a popular topping for avocado toast, she added, a dish that has permeated the restaurant scene.

Despite the government guidelines listing eggs as a nutrient-dense protein, the Food and Drug Administration’s definition for “healthy” on food labels does not apply to egg producers, because eggs exceed the agency’s criteria for fat and cholesterol. The FDA has acknowledged that public health recommendations have changed, and the agency is currently reviewing public input to update its definition of “healthy” for food labeling.

Environmentally speaking, industrial egg production has benefits compared with raising cows and sheep, but still generates drawbacks for local ecosystems, said Sujatha Bergen, director of health campaigns at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.

“From a climate perspective eggs are better to eat than beef, but are worse than legumes and other plant sources of proteins,” she said. Bergen added that concentrated chicken production can pollute bodies of water, like the Chesapeake Bay, from runoff that carries chicken manure. To protect the environment through diet, she recommended that people increase the amount of plant-based proteins they eat.