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Pop around Town﹕Confused about eggs?

【明報專訊】LIKE many people, I am a fan of eggs. I consume an average of 1.5 eggs a day. Whether boiled, fried, or scrambled, the aroma of freshly cooked eggs jolts me from my sleepy self in the morning (along with coffee, of course) and helps me start my day on a good footing. Eggs are also in my childhood memory. Games involving eggs — from Easter egg hunt and egg painting, to egg dyeing — accompany many people's childhood. My father and I used to play a game of "scraping" when we ate boiled eggs. The point was to scrape and eat egg whites from the egg shell without breaking the shell. The one who did it in the cleanest way won!

During the early 1900s, chickens and their eggs were a major source of income for many families, although some environmental factors threatened poultry farming, such as weather, larger animals, and disease. It was not until the early 1920s that chickens were bred indoors. In the 1950s and 1960s, as production increased and more hens survived, farmers noticed that the increasing egg production also brought good income. Gradually, chicken and eggs became more affordable, as opposed to being luxury food in previous times.

Yet the one story about egg that dominates our minds these days is about safety and heart health. In the 1970s, as hens became more productive, food scientists and egg producers realised the need for new food safety policy. The US Congress passed the Egg Products Inspection Act, which makes sure eggs are safe for consumers. Yet the enormously popular 1976 film Rocky showed Sylvester Stallone, the renowned working-class boxer, famously drinking raw eggs. This prompted scientists to issue warnings of the risk of contracting the salmonella bacteria and developing a deficiency of biotin, a vitamin important for skin, hair and nails. By the mid-1980s, a strong association was made between egg consumption and high cholesterol. TIME magazine featured a cover story on cholesterol with an image of a plate with two fried eggs resembling eyes and a bacon frown. It was not until 1995 that the health authorities set a unified recommendation of consuming less than 300 mg per day from dietary cholesterol. This means roughly 1.5 boiled eggs per day (one large boiled egg contains 186 mg of dietary cholesterol).

Over the years, scientists has waged their battle of what to do about eggs. In 2013, a large study reviewing scientific data from 1966 to 2012 concluded that consuming up to one egg per day was not associated with increased heart disease risk. Yet just last month, the authoritative Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) published an article that shocked the public when it pointed out there is an association between consuming eggs and an increased risk of heart disease and all-cause mortality. The risk identified in the JAMA research was linked to consuming, in addition to one's regular diet, an extra three to four eggs per week, or 300 mg of dietary cholesterol a day. In previous studies, consuming up to one egg a day actually entails decreased and no heart disease risk.

The confusion continues. But for me, it does not dampen my fondness for eggs, as long as I cook them with vegetable oil, skip the egg yolk, and monitor my cholesterol consumption from other sources.

■Writer's Profile

John Erni is a university professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. He thinks everyday culture is complex but always enchanting.

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