By Charlotte Hawkins, Volunteer Contributor
As Shrove Tuesday rolls around again, we'll all be making sure we've stocked up on enough eggs for our annual pancake-fest. Although traditionally a recipe made the day before Ash Wednesday to use up leftover ingredients, many of us no longer follow the fasting practices of Lent, but are still fond of our annual pancake-making tradition.
Eggs aren't just about pancakes though! They are truly one of nature's most versatile foods. On their own, they can be prepared in a myriad of ways (poached, boiled, fried, scrambled, baked, as an omelette) and can also be an integral part of meals as diverse as a French Salade Niçoise or Indian kedgeree. Nearly all cultures have their own egg-based savory dishes and desserts, but they are also the hidden star in foods where they act as an emulsifier or binder, such as mayonnaise or cake, in which their unique properties are hard to replicate using other ingredients.
As well as being incredibly versatile, eggs are nutritional heavyweights. Once maligned due to their high cholesterol content and salmonella risk, as our understanding of the health impact of dietary cholesterol has developed and hens are now routinely vaccinated against salmonella, eggs have now been exonerated. They contain a rich array of nutrients in a form that is easily metabolised by the human body, including first class protein (with an amino acid distribution ideally suited to our needs), vitamin D and the B vitamin complex, and minerals iodine and selenium (which can often be lacking in our diets). They also contain compounds including choline, lutein and zeaxanthin, which are all necessary for good health. All this for only around 70 calories per egg!
With most foods, what you get out of it depends on what goes into its production, and this is particularly true when it comes to eggs. Chickens that have been allowed to forage and eat a natural diet will produce eggs that are far more nutrient-rich than those that have been kept in cages eating food chosen for its low cost rather than nutritional suitability. You don't need a laboratory to assess this – a comparison of a supermarket egg from a caged hen with a free-range organic one will reveal clear differences in yolk colour and viscosity.
Thankfully, intense battery farming for egg production has been illegal in the EU since 2012, although it is still legal in most other parts of the world. This has led to a popular misconception that we no longer have caged hens producing eggs in the UK which is not true – hens can still be locked in cages their entire lives, but the cages, known – somewhat euphemistically – as "enriched", are bigger, and they now have a little more space per bird, perches and scratching posts, which they didn't have under battery farming methods.
- Shockingly, 48% of eggs sold in the UK are still produced in cages.
- Around 3% of eggs come from chickens kept in barns where welfare standards are marginally better, but they still have little room to move and express natural behaviour and no access to daylight or outdoors.
- In the UK, 47% of eggs are produced by free-range hens- a figure much higher than in the rest of Europe.
- Only 2% are produced organically.
Many people buy free range eggs thinking that if organic eggs are free-range (which, of course, they are) then welfare standards must be the same. This is not the case – organic standards, particularly those of the Soil Association, are far higher.
- Soil Association standards permit only 2,000 hens per flock.
- But free-range birds can be held in flocks of up to 16,000.
- Organic birds must have continuous daytime access to outdoors covered with suitable vegetation, with a maximum stocking density of six birds per square metre indoors and ten square metres per bird outside.
- Free-range birds can be stocked at nine birds per square metre and are only required to have 4 square metres per bird outside.
There are not just differences in stocking density for organic and free-range birds: Hens kept to Soil Association standards are not fed GM feed, and beak trimming and the routine use of antibiotics are forbidden, whereas they are allowed in free-range standards. Even if you don't choose organic eggs for your health, it is worth it for the higher welfare standards.
If you really have too much time on your hands, you can look up which farm your egg has come from using the Food Miles website.
True food's chicken eggs come from Haresfield Farm in Wiltshire, where flocks are kept to strict Soil Association organic standards. They are delivered to True Food directly from the farm – with no waiting around at a regional distribution centre – so will be far fresher than you can buy elsewhere. Also, as is always the case with True Food, you can buy as many or as few as you like, from several trays to just one egg if that's all you need.
True Food also sells organic duck eggs, which are much harder to come by. These are produced by Puddle Lane Duck Eggs in Wiltshire. Duck eggs are a little bigger than hens' eggs, with a richer colour and flavour. They contain slightly more calories than hens' eggs due to the higher fat content, but that is balanced by an even higher nutrient profile, and as they are also Soil Association certified, you can be confident that they have been produced to the highest welfare standards.
With so many eggs-cellent (sorry!) reasons to eat them, make sure you pick up some chicken or duck eggs next time you come to True Food.