Cholesterol is a buzz word in today's society of overfed, underexercised and undernourished Americans. Mention of it has been known to incite bewilderment and fear in most people.
But accord may be on the horizon in the battle between Americans and cholesterol, according to the egg industry and an Arizona researcher, who spoke to food editors and writers in Los Angeles, recently, on the subject.
Because of changes in egg industry feeding, husbandry and breeding practices, the Egg Nutrition Center is preparing to announce that the cholesterol value of today's large egg is 25% lower than the amount listed in the "USDA Handbook 8-1," the government resource for nutrient composition of foods.
This information is based on provisional data collected from more than half of the nation's largest egg handlers, who represent about 67% of all the eggs marketed in the country. The official announcement will be made in the next six to eight weeks.
According to Cathy McCharen, vice president of the Egg Nutrition Center, an educational arm of the American Egg Board, the industry began working with the USDA Department of Human Nutrition and Information Service (HNIS) last year on the protocol necessary for sampling large eggs to achieve an accurate cholesterol reading. With the help of HNIS and the USDA Agriculture Research Service/Human Nutrition Research Center, a standard method of analysis was developed.
The eggs were then gathered throughout the summer and tested. But when the results were presented to the USDA, it required additional sampling that would take into consideration possible differences in the figure due to seasonal variation.
Specifically, HNIS questioned whether or not eggs examined during winter might test higher. (Eggs gathered during the winter season tend to be slightly larger and would therefore contain more cholesterol.) Once the winter assessments are completed, officials say that the government will make an amendment to the handbook, giving the 210 mg. figure official status.
"We're satisfied that the nationwide sampling and methods used were done properly," said Dr. Jack. Exler, a nutritionist for HNIS, who explained that the organization is currently waiting for the winter egg test results. "Sometime this year we will issue supplemental pages to the handbook," he said.
When the new figure is authorized, when compared with the existing data in Handbook 8, the egg will demonstrate a decrease in cholesterol from 274 mg to about 210. Other nutrients such as total fat, saturated fat, calories and protein remain about the same: 5 grams total fat; 2 grams saturated fat, 70 calories and 6 grams protein.
What that means is that based on the handbook figure of 274 mg. cholesterol per egg, a person on the American Heart Assn.'s eating plan for healthy Americans, which prescribes no more than three egg yolks per week, would be allowed 822 mg. of cholesterol each week. Using the 210 mg. figure, this person could potentially add one egg to the recommended 3 yolks per week and achieve the same goal.
There are two primary reasons for the disagreement between the new information and the old, McCharen reports. Changes in the hens themselves, based on feeding, handling and breeding practices as well as on new methods of production, account for at least half. The other half is attributed to "far more accurate analysis" techniques for eggs that are available today, she said.
The 274 figure "was the best guess that the egg industry could provide," at the time Handbook 8 was developed, she said, adding that "this is the first time that this many eggs have been tested" at one time.
The 210 figure will be good news to Americans who began nursing their fear of cholesterol nearly 20 years ago by eliminating nutrient-dense but high-in-cholesterol-foods, such as eggs, shrimp and red meat from the diet.
Since that time, the scientific community has been hard-pressed to translate its research data into accurate information that people could incorporate into daily living. And as a result, people have chosen elimination instead of moderation when designing healthful diets around eggs.
Despite the National Institutes of Health Cholesterol Education Program, which seeks to enlighten consumers about and dispel some of the myths about the wax-like substance in the bloodstream, there remains gross confusion over the correlation between dietary cholesterol, blood cholesterol and heart disease.
The manufacturing industry is seen as one of the major contributors intensifying the confusion. By capitalizing on consumer contempt for cholesterol, producers boast the lack of it in some of their products--many of which by their very nature--are cholesterol-free (only animal by-products contain cholesterol). The fact that these foods simultaneously contain saturated fat is under-emphasized.
But the egg industry's "miracle in the henhouse," much like the response from other agricultural groups who are providing leaner varieties of their products, could revolutionize the way America thinks about cholesterol. It is hoped that a lower cholesterol content for the egg will restore its place in the diet and it will again be proclaimed as a rich source of protein that offers very little saturated fat.
"It's true that a high blood cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease," said Donald J. McNamara, a professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Science, University of Arizona, "but blood cholesterol is not the same as dietary cholesterol, and most people are confused.
"Many people erroneously believe that the cholesterol we eat goes directly into the bloodstream and from there, directly onto artery walls," he said. "The actual fate of dietary cholesterol, as well as the process of athersclerosis, is much more complicated."
"The reason cholesterol (and ultimately the egg) ever got the focus at all," said McCharen, "is that it is the same word and the difference between blood cholesterol and dietary cholesterol is not conveyed. . . . No one that is a responsible nutrition information source recommended avoiding eggs.
"Based on this new information, I think it makes it a lot easier to get the right message to consumers and that is that you certainly don't need to cut any food out of your diet to have a heart-healthy diet. Limiting intake has always been recommended," she said.
Linda Dahl, California Dietetic Assn. president and coordinator of outpatient/community Nutrition Services and Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, agrees that people should not eliminate wholesome foods from their diets.
"I do believe in following a more prudent diet. However, in terms of saturated fat and cholesterol, I feel that if we become overly concerned to the point of being compulsive about omitting these from our diets, we could possibly be compromising our nutrition status.
"The important thing is to make a relative difference (in the way you eat) whether it's a diet rich in butterfat or a diet rich in egg yolks. People should make a relative change in what they are doing and any decrease is considered positive."
McNamara said, "Most people don't have to be concerned about the dietary cholesterol in eggs, but if a 'low cholesterol' egg helps more people realize that eggs are good for them, so much the better."