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Wall Street Journal / Life - Entertain

The Great Egg Debate: Are They Healthy or Not?

Nutrition experts say eggs are beneficial in a high-protein diet but the FDA says they’re too high in fat and cholesterol to be labeled healthy.

Americans craving high-protein foods are gobbling up more eggs.

Are eggs good for you or not?

It’s never been more confusing for consumers to answer that seemingly simple question. Vilified for years for their high cholesterol content, eggs more recently have broken back into dietary fashion. Nutrition experts today are touting eggs’ high levels of protein, essential vitamins and nutrients like brain-booster choline.

Government guidelines sometimes contradict nutrition experts’ advice as they play catch up with the latest scientific findings. Dietary advice from the U.S. departments of agriculture and health and human services includes eggs as part of a healthy diet, but also says cholesterol intake should be as low as possible. And the Food and Drug Administration says that eggs are too high in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol to be labeled “healthy” by food marketers.

It’s such a scrambled issue that one egg brand is petitioning for an official government reassessment of eggs. “There’s so much new science out there about eggs, it’s time for the FDA to get with the program,” says Jesse Laflamme, chief executive of Pete and Gerry’s Organics, who filed a citizen’s petition urging the agency to rethink its ban on calling eggs “healthy.”

The CEO of Pete and Gerry’s Organics has filed a citizen’s petition urging the FDA to rethink its ban on calling eggs ‘healthy.’

Eggs’ bad rap stems from their high cholesterol: One large egg yolk has 186 milligrams. U.S. guidelines used to advise people to limit dietary cholesterol to 300 milligrams a day. The current advice removes that cap, after studies showed that the cholesterol in food didn’t raise blood cholesterol levels significantly. But the guidelines still advise cholesterol intake be kept as low as possible.

As the health debate swirls, Americans craving high-protein foods are gobbling up more eggs. Americans ate about 276 eggs per person last year, up from 253 in 2000, according to the USDA’s per capita “disappearance” of eggs, a metric used to estimate long-term consumption trends.

Eggs can be a good source of protein and other nutrients, says Alice Lichtenstein, a member of the advisory committee for the government dietary guidelines who also serves as a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association and a professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University. But she cautions that Americans should make sure they’re not also eating more accompaniments like bacon, sausage and buttered toast. “You have to look at the whole consumption pattern,” Dr. Lichtenstein says.

Eggs have gotten the blessing of weight-loss company Weight Watchers International Inc., which late last year added eggs to the foods its members can eat without tracking. “It’s a high-quality protein and good for satiety,” says Gary Foster, the company’s chief scientific officer. Members consistently name eggs as their favorite food on the untracked list, he says. “Eggs don’t feel so ‘diety,’” he says, noting that members are unlikely to overeat eggs, unlike the temptation with cookies or donuts.

Kate Gormley, a pharmaceutical saleswoman in Richmond, Va., shares pictures of her egg meals on Instagram.

They’re also becoming more fashionable. “Eggs have always been a restaurant and home kitchen workhorse, but they have garnered new levels of respect,” David Sprinkle, publisher and research director of market-research firm Packaged Facts wrote in a report last month, highlighting the rising profiles of deviled eggs, frittatas and meringues in restaurants.

Some 36% of restaurant brunch menus offered eggs Benedict last year, up from 30% in 2007, according to Datassential, a food-trend research firm. Chilaquiles, a Mexican dish that includes eggs, tortillas and salsa or mole, were listed on 10% of brunch menus in 2017, nearly double the percentage that listed it in 2007, Datassential says. Eggs on burgers now appear on 15% of menus, and pizzas topped with egg are listed on 11%.

Instagram mentions of #eggs number nearly 10 million. Johan Engman, owner of Breakfast Republic, a chain of seven restaurants in the San Diego area, recalls trying to figure out how to spruce up a traditional Mexican sandwich, mindful of how many of his patrons like to post photos of their meals on social media. “We decided we needed to add eggs to make it look better,” he says, ultimately serving it with the top bun pushed to the side so that two sunny side-up eggs sit atop the sandwich.

Ms. Gormley usually eats two pasture-raised eggs each day.

Kate Gormley, a pharmaceutical saleswoman in Richmond, Va., usually eats two pasture-raised eggs each day, one for breakfast and one hard-boiled and sliced over a salad at lunch. “When I eat eggs, they make me feel so much fuller, it keeps me from snacking and gives me energy,” she says.

Egg brand Pete and Gerry’s Organics is putting the health debate to the test, hoping to win the government’s blessing to label eggs “healthy.”

“Eggs are among the most affordable sources of protein and also have significant amounts of other nutrients, including vitamin D and choline,” says a citizen’s petition filed in April by CEO Mr. Laflamme.

The FDA, which has a broader review underway of its definition of “healthy” foods, acknowledged it received Mr. Laflamme’s petition. “As the agency considers how to modernize the definition and criteria for use of the term ‘healthy’ in food labeling, we are actively reviewing a large body of information and analyses,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.

Mr. Laflamme’s petition was inspired by one filed in 2015 by Kind LLC, a maker of fruit-and-nut bars, which had campaigned for change after it received a warning letter by the agency to stop using the term “healthy” on its packaging. Kind asserted that the FDA should modify its criteria, in part because nuts, a main ingredient in many of its snacks, naturally have more fat than the FDA standard allows. The company noted that avocados, salmon and eggs are also generally considered to be good for you, but don’t meet the FDA’s standard of “healthy.”

In 2016, the FDA rescinded its demand that Kind remove “healthy” from its wrappers. “We welcome others to support the point of view that we took, which is when you’re defining healthy on a food label, you should be looking at foods holistically as opposed to their constituent parts,” says Justin Mervis, Kind’s general counsel.

For now, Pete and Gerry’s egg cartons read “small family farms, health grows here,” and so far hasn’t received objections from regulators. “We decided to walk the fine line,” Mr. Laflamme says.

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