The American Egg Board is a promotional marketing board appointed by the U.S. government whose mission is to “increase demand for egg and egg products on behalf of U.S. egg producers.” If an individual egg company wants to run an ad campaign, they can say pretty much whatever they want. But if an egg corporation wants to dip into the 10 million dollars the American Egg Board sets aside for advertising every year, because the board is overseen by the federal government, corporations are not allowed to lie with those funds. This leads to quite revealing exchanges between egg corporations that want to use that money and the USDA on what egg companies can and cannot say about eggs.
Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act I was able to get my hands on some of those emails. Of course a lot of what I got were pages with nearly all of the text blacked out (you can see these in my video, Who Says Eggs Aren’t Healthy or Safe?). But I did find some illuminating correspondence. For example, one email shows an egg company trying to put out a brochure on healthy snacking for kids. But because of existing laws against false and misleading advertising, the head of the USDA’s poultry research and promotion programs reminds the company that eggs or egg products cannot be couched as being healthy or nutritious. “The words nutritious and healthy carry certain connotations, and because eggs have the amount of cholesterol they do, plus the fact that they’re not low in fat, [the words healthy and nutritious] are problematic.” This is the United States Department of Agriculture saying this!
However, the USDA official helpfully suggests, “I believe you can say something that’s just as strong if not stronger, that is ‘naturally nutrient-dense.’” Why can we say eggs are nutrient-dense but not nutritious? Because there’s no legal definition of nutrient-dense. We can say Twinkies and Coca Cola are nutrient dense, but legally, we can’t say something is nutritious unless it’s actually… nutritious.
For example, the egg industry wanted to run an ad calling eggs a nutritional powerhouse that aids in weight loss. The USDA had to remind the industry that they can’t portray eggs as a diet food because of the fat and cholesterol content. In fact, eggs have nearly twice the calories of anything that can be called “low-calorie.”
“Nutritional powerhouse” can’t be used either. Fine, the industry said, they’ll move to plan B, and headline the ad “Egg-ceptional Nutrition.” They couldn’t say that either because, again, given the saturated fat and cholesterol you can’t legally call eggs nutritious. So the headline ended up as, “Find true satisfaction,” and instead of weight loss they had to go with “can reduce hunger.” The USDA congratulated them on their cleverness. Yes, a food that when eaten can reduce hunger—what a concept!
They can’t even say eggs are “relatively” low in calories. Can’t say eggs are low in saturated fat—they’re not. Can’t say they’re relatively low in fat, they’re not. Can’t even call them a rich source of protein, because, according to the USDA, they’re not.
It’s illegal to advertise that eggs pack a nutritional wallop, or that they have a high nutritional content. Eggs have so much cholesterol, we can’t even say they “contribute nutritionally.” Can’t say eggs are “healthful,” certainly can’t say they’re “healthy.” Can’t even say eggs contribute “healthful components.”
Since we can’t say eggs are a healthy start to the day, the USDA suggests a “satisfying start.” Egg corporations can’t call eggs a healthy ingredient, but they can call eggs a “recognizable” ingredient. Can’t truthfully say eggs are good for us, either. By law, according to the USDA, the egg industry “needs to steer clear of words like ‘healthy’ or ‘nutritious.’”
For a food to be labeled “healthy” under FDA rules, it has to be low in saturated fat (eggs fail that criteria) and have less than 90mg of cholesterol per serving (even half an egg fails that test). For the same reason we can’t tout ice cream for strong bones, we can’t say eggs are healthy because they exceed the threshold for cholesterol.
Egg corporations aren’t even allowed to say things like “Eggs are an important part of a well balanced, healthy diet” on an egg carton because it would be considered misleading according to the USDA’s National Egg Supervisor, since eggs contain significant amounts of fat and cholesterol and therefore can contribute to the leading killer in the United States, heart disease.
The industry can’t afford to tell the truth about the eggs, or even the hens that lay them. The industry crams five to ten birds in cages the size of a file cabinet their whole lives, but when providing footage to the media, the American Egg Board instructs, “do not show multiple birds in cages—they look too crowded and open us up to activist criticism.”
Not only is the industry barred from saying eggs are healthy, they can’t even refer to eggs as safe because more than a hundred thousand Americans are food poisoned by Salmonella from eggs every year.
The egg board’s response to this egg-borne epidemic is that Salmonella is a naturally occurring bacterium. An internal egg industry memo didn’t think that should necessarily be the key message, fearing that “it may be counterproductive by implying there is no avoiding Salmonella in eggs aside from avoiding eggs altogether.”
The food poisoning risk is why the American Egg Board can’t even mention anything but eggs cooked hard and dry. No soft-boiled, no over-easy, no sunny-side up—because of the Salmonella risk. The American Egg Board’s own research showed that the sunny-side up cooking method should be considered “unsafe.”
In light of bird flu viruses, both the white and yolk must be cooked firm. The VP of marketing for the Egg Board complained to the USDA saying they’d “really like to not have to dictate that the yolks are firm,” and cites a Washington Post article saying runny yolks may be safe for everyone except pregnant women, infants, elderly, or those with chronic disease. It turns out it was a misquote—eggs can’t be considered safe for anyone.
Instead of safe, they can call eggs “fresh,” the USDA marketing service helpfully suggests. But they can’t call eggs safe, and they can’t say eggs are “safe to eat.” They can’t even mention safety at all.
Wait a second, not only can eggs not be called healthy they can’t even be called safe? Says who? Says the United States Department of Agriculture.
For more peeks behind the egg industry curtain see:
- Eggs and Cholesterol: Patently False and Misleading Claims
- Eggs vs. Cigarettes in Atherosclerosis
- Eggs and Choline: Something Fishy
- Eggs, Choline, and Cancer
- Eggs and Diabetes
- Egg Industry Blind Spot
-Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.
Image Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr