As vegans, we are quizzed about many things but primarily the questions tend to be about what we eat. In dietary terms veganism means avoiding all products derived wholly or partly from animals so the answer to, do vegans eat eggs, is pretty simple, it’s no. What I wanted to do in this article is look at the both eggs and the egg industry. To explain many of the reasons why vegans don’t eat eggs and maybe if you do eat eggs to at least get you to ask yourself if you really need to.
Before we get underway I just wanted to let you know that there are a few videos within this article that have footage that some people may find distressing. These videos are all available on YouTube and some are age restricted so if you are easily upset by distressing images you may wish to choose not to watch them. To help counter that the video at the end of this article is the much more uplifting story of rescued hens. Ok so let’s get underway and find out why vegans don’t eat eggs.
I’ve Always Eaten Eggs
The argument we hear when we talk about the merits of many foods is that “well we have always eaten it”. Just because we have always done something doesn’t make it right or the best thing that we can do. As we evolve as a species and become more knowledgeable we should be able to look at what we have “always done” asses if it is the best thing for our health and ask is it morally correct.
After all it we used to believe that the earth was flat (some people still do!), that tobacco was good for you and that a lobotomy was a cure for mental illness. So, we take what we have learnt and evolve hopefully becoming a healthier more compassionate species as we do so. Why then is it so hard for people to do this with food? Well the truth is it can be for many reasons but more often than not it’s because it’s easier to listen to confirmation of existing views and values than to challenge them.
It is particularly easy to do when there is a lot of money involved in influencing you to continue thinking the same way. All of this applies to eggs, that little ovoid that many of us have grown up with as a regular part of our diet. So, let’s explore eggs and see why there is good reason not to have them on our plate
Eggs And Health
Lest quickly go back to the initial argument that if we have always eaten something then it should be part of our diet. We have to understand how we have evolved as a species and that our primary goal has always been that of survival and reproduction. Hundreds of thousands of years ago heart disease and cancer were not leading causes of death whereas starvation and communicable diseases were.
Eggs would have been a source of nutrition that would have been consumed when available to supplement other sources and avoid starvation. They would have never been consumed in the quantities that they are today and would only have been an essential part of our diet in times of shortage. So, what do eggs bring to the table in terms of health.
Fat And Cholesterol
Well some of the things that eggs definitely bring are both saturated fat and cholesterol. Let’s look at some of the numbers for eggs and state some facts. The majority of an eggs calories are made up from fat, almost 70%, approximately a third of which is saturated fat a significant contributor to both heart disease and diabetes. The egg industry like many other food industries is very good at confusing people into believing that their product is not only harmless but healthy. This confusion has even led to debates about saturated fats in the diet and whether they’re a good thing or a bad thing. The scientific data points in one direction only – saturated fats are not good for you!
A large size egg also contains around 250 milligrams of cholesterol, something that humans have no biological need to consume as our bodies are able to make sufficient levels without any dietary requirements. So, we have no need to consume dietary cholesterol. For those who have diabetes or cardiovascular disease this is particularly important with the recommendation that dietary cholesterol does not exceed 200 milligrams per day. Although cutting down on dietary cholesterol after you develop health problems seems bit like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
We know then that eggs contain saturated fat and cholesterol and despite industry funded data to the contrary the science is pretty clear that consumption of these increases your risk of heart disease. Professor David Spence, a director of the Stroke Prevention and Atherosclerosis Research Centre in Ontario, and his team surveyed more than 1,200 patients. They concluded that the regular consumption of egg yolk directly contributed to an increased build-up of arterial plaques which increase the risk of stroke and heart attack.
A recent study published this March by the medical journal JAMA which included 29,615 people who were followed for an average 17.5 years found that the more eggs that participants consumed the higher their risk of cardiovascular disease. Eggs are also a rich source of choline, an essential nutrient we need in small amounts, too much however can be detrimental to health. Research has shown that one of the by-products of choline TMAO increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and death.
Next on the list type 2 diabetes. A 2009 study using data from 57,000 US men and women concluded that high levels of egg consumption are associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes in men and women. Professor Spence’s survey that we had previously mentioned also found that people who ate an egg a day had double the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in comparison to those ate less than one egg per week. It is also worth noting that high levels of cholesterol have been shown to suppress insulin production and also lower the body’s sensitivity to it.
Egg consumption has been linked to the increased risk of developing certain cancers. The International Journal of Cancer published analysis that showed people who consume only 1.5 eggs per week increased their risk of colon cancer 5-fold when compared to those who consumed hardly any eggs (less than 1 per month). Egg consumption has also been linked to breast, prostate and ovarian cancers which are known to be hormone-sensitive.
A 2002 study (Pirozzo etal., 2002) found “a strong and significant relationship between cholesterol from eggs and the risk of ovarian cancer”. And in 2011 a large study published in The Journal Cancer Prevention Research revealed that men who ate 2.5 eggs per week increased their risk of prostate cancer by more than 80% when compared with men who consumed less than half an egg per week.
Food Poising And Other Treats
Salmonella is one of the most common forms of food poisoning and affects millions of people every year and although found in various foods eggs are the main source. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in the US alone in excess of 1 million people contract salmonella each year and that of these there are around 20,000 hospitalisations and almost 400 deaths. Eggs can also carry other dangerous bacteria, such as listeria and campylobacter which can both cause serious illness.
How About The Girls?
Ok so we have looked at some of the potential health issues of egg consumption but let’s have a look at the girls who do all the work. When we are asked do vegans eat eggs and we answer no it is the welfare of the chickens that tends to be the primary concern. You see what many people don’t realise is that chickens are extraordinary birds, as anyone who has kept them knows.
They are intelligent, inquisitive, sociable and always on the go strutting everywhere, constantly seeking new things to eat. Our rescued hens would follow me everywhere and when I went indoors they would jump up on the window ledge and peck the glass to come in. Chickens are the most common of farm animals living all over the world. They are bred both for their meat and eggs and this has resulted in a selective breeding process that has produced two very different types of chickens.
Those reared for meat put on weight extraordinarily quickly whilst egg-laying hens are bred to be lightweight to channel all of their energy into laying eggs. That being the case what happens to the male chicks of egg laying hens? after all they can’t lay eggs or grow big enough or fast enough for the meat industry. Let’s have a look and see.
I’m afraid this is where things start to go downhill. You see we are sold an image of the happy healthy hen whose photo is on the box of eggs we buy. After all nothing makes us feel better about have our morning omelette than knowing that the hen that laid the egg has an incredible life frolicking around with friends. Unfortunately, that image is far from the truth. Those male chicks of egg laying hens are of no value and are killed shortly after birth.
After hatching chicks are tipped on to a conveyer belt and sorted. All the males and any sickly females are immediately rejected and thrown into bins, sacks or crates. They are then killed and the method of their death will typically depend on what part of the world you are in. In the UK, they are typically asphyxiated in a gas chamber and then thrown in to a giant macerator (think big blender with huge blades).
Often in the US and other countries the asphyxiation is by-passed and the chicks thrown into the blender alive. Some factories have started electrocuting the chicks as it is a cheaper. Other methods such as cervical dislocation where pressure is applied to the neck to dislocate the spinal column from the skull or brain is also used.
Either way the outcome is the same, in the UK alone over 40 million day old chicks are killed each year and in the US this number exceeds 200 million.
So what happens to the “lucky ones” the girls whose picture ends up on our egg box. Well those lucky female chicks first get their vaccinations and are then ‘de-beaked’ at the hatchery before being sent off to special units for rearing. De-beaked, yes that’s right de-beaking is basically the part amputation of the beak and is done to minimise the damage that chickens do by pecking at each other due to the over-crowded and unnatural conditions at egg farms.
The chick’s beaks are rich in blood vessels and nerve endings around a third of which is removed with no form of anaesthesia or pain relief. There are two main methods used, either that of a mechanical cutter with a red-hot blade which cauterises the exposed beak and also a method that uses a high intensity infrared beam. And once these hens reach their destination then what? Well at around 16 weeks they become egg laying machines laying up to 250 eggs per year often in terrible conditions.
It’s worth noting that naturally they would lay between 20 and 30 eggs a year in order solely to produce young and have a natural lifespan of between 8-10 years.
Then typically between 18 months and 2 years of age when their ability to lay so many eggs diminishes they are sent to slaughter. Many don’t make it to the slaughterhouse, after being roughly stuffed into crates many suffer broken legs, wings and very high injury levels that result in extreme pain and death. For those that do the prize is being strapped live to a conveyer belt and having their throat slit.
But At Least Free Range Is Much Better, Right?
Well better than what? Better than being caged, well possibly. The legislation which allows the use of the term free-range will differ slightly from country to country. Currently in the UK legislation says that birds must have access to outside space and that there should be no more than 9 birds per sq. meter. The harsh reality though is that these birds go through the same horrendous start to life.
Then at egg producing age of around 16 weeks they are kept in the same conditions and treated the same way as non-free-range birds apart from the little bit of extra space they have. As for having access to outside space, well this often poorly kept with one study finding that less than 15 % of the total flock that was surveyed choose to go outside because the numbers are just too high.
A 2010 Viva investigation found hens “free-ranging” outside on a waterlogged range were “scrawny, had poor feather cover and appeared unwell”. For those that do get outside, they are soon back to the indoor shed, squashed into unnatural conditions and forced constantly to fight for space to move. Even without the confinement of cage, overcrowding, injuries and death still regularly occur. The only real notable key difference is that free-range hens aren’t in cages.
Other Welfare Labels
So, we have looked at free-range but there are other “welfare labels” that are also used, what do these really mean? Do they help or are they just another marketing ploy? These labels are all used within the UK, with similar labels found in most countries.
RSPCA assured; In reality their guidelines are the bare minimum. Not only that, but inspections are rare and it is pretty easy to get their ‘assured’ labelling. The guidelines state that there should be no more than 15 birds per sq. meter and outside space is not always required. Being RSPCA assured doesn’t guarantee anything else apart from cage-free eggs.
Red tractor assurance scheme; The guidelines state that there should be no more than 19 birds per sq. meter and that outside space is not required. This is the most common food safety standard required by retailers and is in line with the minimum required by law. It is widely considered to be wholly inadequate. It claims to ‘promote clearer labelling and ensure food originates from a trustworthy source’. In truth, it simply guarantees the product is legal.
British Lion Quality Mark; British lion quality simply guarantees that eggs are produced to meet the minimum legal food safety requirements which basically means that the chicks are vaccinated against salmonella.
A Balanced View Of Eggs
Before I finish I want anyone reading this to know that I have not set out in any way to be deliberately negative about the egg industry. As someone who grew up in the countryside next to a farm, whose grandfather owned a dairy and someone who was a protein addict and gym junky for many years I have eaten my fair share of eggs. There is no doubt that eggs can supply certain nutrients. They are well-known for their protein content and also contain levels of certain vitamins such as A and D.
There is also a substantial amount of research available that promotes eggs countering any negativity and lauding all the health benefits. Unfortunately, when I started looking in detail at much of this research I found a great deal is funded by none other than organisations with a vested interested in, you guessed it, eggs! When we see the authors being paid tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to write positive papers we have to wonder about a conflict of interest.
And when popular food bloggers are being paid $2500 to write stories about the virtues of eggs using key messages, they have been told to use I question the validity even more. So, let’s cut to the chase. Let’s pretend for a moment that eggs don’t contain saturated fat and cholesterol, even if that was the case there would still no good reason to eat them. Yes, they contain protein, the most over hyped macronutrient ever. In fact animal protein is consumed in such quantities it is actually damaging our health, (you can read our article on protein the myths here).
The fact is if eating to calorific needs a whole food plant based diet will easily supply all the protein that you need along with lots of other goodies like fibre, phytonutrients and antioxidants. So even if we believe those studies that say the cholesterol and saturated fat in eggs isn’t harmful there still are no good reason to have them on our table.
Let’s Finish With The Chickens
I want to finish with a little about the chickens. We have ascertained that eggs bring nothing to the table nutritiously that isn’t available from plants or the sun and that their consumption can actually have a lot of negative health implications. But the biggest negative of all are the billions of chickens slaughtered every year most of whom have had to endure a life of pain and torment just so that we can have our morning eggs.
Chickens are amazing creatures, I can attest to that having rescued dozens of battery hens over the years. They arrive with us often almost bald, unable to walk properly and very timid. Within weeks their health improves and their character starts to appear. You see what many people don’t realise is that chickens are intelligent sentient creatures. According to recent scientific studies new-born chicks are more intelligent, alert, and aware of their environment than human toddlers.
Adult chickens are even capable of mathematical reasoning and logic, including numeracy, self-control and even the have the ability to create basic structures. They have the ability to empathise as well as feel boredom, frustration or happiness. If you have never spent any time with chickens I really recommend you do, they are amazing creatures. So do vegans eat eggs, absolutely not, and if you can do one thing for your health and for theirs it’s please keep eggs off your plate.