What the changing fortunes of eggs tell us about nutrition, food trends and health

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What is an egg? Five grams of fat, a bit of it saturated, and slightly more monounsaturated; the type of fat found in olive oil. A fair amount of cholesterol. A good source of vitamin D and vitamin B12. Around 25 per cent of the daily intake of selenium, used by the body to make antioxidant defences. On top of that there’s 25g of protein in a large egg, which is important for building muscle. 

Reading all this, you might imagine that eggs would be an unequivocal candidate for superfood status, alongside the likes of kale, avocado and acai berries. 

“There’s no such thing as a superfood, but if there were, eggs would be a good candidate,” says Ian Marber, nutritionist and health writer as we chat ahead of today’s World Egg Day celebrations. “They are an interesting food because they come in their own little packet. They’re versatile and they’re dowdy. There’s so many things you can do with eggs.” 

And yet, despite its merits, the humble egg’s fortunes have never been entirely clear cut. Back in the 1950s the slogan “go to work on an egg” made the egg a breakfast favourite, suggesting that it was the best way to start the working day. 

A few decades later and nutritionists were beginning to understand the role of cholesterol in our diets, and eggs were demonised (“unfairly, because in truth, the human body makes all the cholesterol it needs, and if we eat foods with cholesterol in them, we just make less of it,” says Marber.) By the 1970s, they were back in fashion again thanks to the original Atkins diet, before junior health minister Edwina Currie claimed all eggs contained salmonella and their popularity dove off a cliff. 

Back in favour

Eggs had another reversal in fortune in the early 2000s thanks to the revival of the Atkins diet, and have been sitting reasonably pretty ever since. 

“Eggs are a great example of how foods come in and out of fashion for the most unexpected reasons,” explains Marber. “In the same way that fashion designers have to show new and different things, you can PR a food to make it seem fashionable.” Marber cites noni juice, which was hugely marketed as a health food and linked to various claims about curing diseases, none of which was ever proved. “Noni juice was, to my mind, the first superfood,” he says. “It was PR’d and marketed the hell out of, and noni juice had this office in London because it was so successful; but where the hell is it now?” 

Ultimately, says Marber, all it takes for a food to become a ‘superfood’ is that it should ideally come from somewhere exotic, it should have an interesting story behind it (“used by Amazonian natives for hundreds of years or whatever”) and a good marketing team. 

But does the ephemeral nature of superfood and the trials and tribulations faced by eggs prove that much of what we think we know about the nutritional merits of certain food is, ultimately, marketing spin and entirely disconnected from reality?  After all, if eggs can be good for us one minute and demonised the next, what does that say about the science of nutrition? Could it mean that one day we will be told that fruit and vegetables are killing us? 

“It’s unlikely, but one of the things I think is that every generation is at the cutting edge,” laughs Marber. “Nutrition is a science that changes all the time. Things mature, diet is seen in a wider context as we discover more. At the time when people were being warned away from eggs, it was entirely sensible: you have raised cholesterol and eggs contain cholesterol, so don’t eat them, that just makes sense. Now we know more about how the body regulates cholesterol naturally; in fact you actually need fibre to sweep away excess cholesterol from the gut.” 

So in the case of eggs, it’s fair to say that, at least for the time being, you don’t need to feel guilty about their impact on your health.  

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