“Why is the yolk in my backyard chickens’ eggs dark orange, while that in the organic-labeled eggs from the store pale yellow?”
Everyone I know is pleasantly obsessed with the color of egg yolks. I count myself among them: The deeper the hue, the more delicious the eggs taste and the healthier (and more virtuous) I feel after eating them. Are we all kidding ourselves?
It’s true that richly colored yolks often come from the eggs of truly free-range, or pastured, hens, who busily hunt and peck their way to a more varied (and more pigmented) diet. They can also come from hens that are given feed laced with paprika or marigolds (a technique developed by Frank Perdue and still going strong, as evidenced by one conversation thread at backyardchickens.com). I can’t seem to shake the image of my grandmother’s chickens, which laid gorgeous eggs and knew it, strutting through the marigolds that always bordered the tomato patch. Who knew?
On a macro level, though, it’s important to understand that a yolk is a yolk is a yolk is a yolk, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein. Egg yolks may range in color from pale yellow to an almost Day-Glo orange, but a deeper, richer color is not an indicator of nutritive content. No matter what, the protein and fat content of an egg yolk remain the same: The yolk of one large egg, for instance, contains 6.30 grams of protein and five grams fat.
Make no mistake about it, this is a wonderful thing: An egg is perhaps the simplest shortcut to a quick, inexpensive, nutritious, and delicious meal. Last night, for instance, my husband and I were made happy by nothing more complicated than bowls of steaming-hot rice mixed with leftover sautéed kale and topped with one fried egg each—sunny side up, of course, and crisped just right around the edge. A little Sriracha or, in my case, a dab of the fermented Korean chile paste gochujang, took supper over the top.
Protein and fat content aside, though, chickens, like us, are what they eat. Any number of studies reveal that chickens raised in a wholesome way, with plenty of time outside to roam and forage, lay eggs that are higher in omega-3s, vitamins D and E, and beta-carotene, which our bodies convert into vitamin A. They are also lower in cholesterol. Bonus points, in other words.
Of course, we all presume that chickens raised on pasture are not ingesting pesticides and other chemicals along with essential vitamins, minerals, and trace elements. But is the same true of backyard chickens? Well, it depends on the backyard. If you are enjoying eggs from the hens that are foraging right outside the back door—especially if you are feeding those eggs to young children—get the soil tested. In fact, the New York Times reported elevated lead levels in the eggs of a number of New York City community gardens, which is depressing on several different levels.
No matter what kind of eggs you prefer, eat them in moderation, and be aware that salmonella can be a problem in them all, even those from organic, and/or pastured or backyard ones. Minimize the risk by proper handling: Store eggs in the refrigerator (I don’t care what they do in Europe), and wash your hands and any utensils that touch them.
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