How much cholesterol in an egg?

The list of different types of eggs shows how cholesterol in an egg fluctuates from 140 to 270 mg depending on size, brand and how farmers raise their chickens.

I really wonder if it’s possible that so many established entities can’t agree about the amount of cholesterol in 1 egg? According to the Mayo Clinic, a large egg contains 186 mg; ScienceNews.org mentions slightly more than 200 mg; the Harvard Health Press notes 212 mg, 213 mg at heart.org and the Discovery News site tops it of by saying that one egg yolk – depending on its size – contains 215 to 275 mg…

Really? They can’t agree on a figure? Knowing that I just need to go to hospital, let a nurse or doctor draw some blood, and it takes at most a few hours later to find out exactly whether or not my blood cholesterol levels are above or below the desirable 200 mg/dL.

A large egg in my fridge weighs 64 grams, a small egg weighs 46 grams

If I have my own small laboratory at home and the expertise, I would sacrifice a few eggs and simply do the test myself. But all I can do at home is opening my fridge and taking out the smallest and the largest egg. The large egg weighs 64 grams and the small 46 grams: about 1/4th less compared to the bigger egg.

Other than that, I know that the egg yolks from the eggs my mother raises in her own free range garden are much more yellow in color than any standard eggs I buy in the supermarket. So far for my findings. The rest of my knowledge is researched from the net and summarized as follows:

  • different cholesterol amounts is dependant on the egg size: the bigger the egg, the more cholesterol it will have
  • different cholesterol amounts is dependant to the amount of exercise a chicken gets: the more a chicken roams around on a pasture, the less cholesterol will be in the eggs
  • no different cholesterol amounts were found in normal, free range, organic, vegetarian or cage free eggs from the same manufacturer

Official terminology of egg sizes explained

Egg sizes are labeled as medium, large, extra large and jumbo. Although the US is well known for its oversized portions, when it comes to eggs, a large egg is only 50 grams: 14 grams less than the "large egg" I found in my fridge.

Egg Size Name Weight of 1 egg in grams Weight of 12 eggs in Oz
Medium 44 gram or above 21
Large 50 gram or above 24
Extra Large 56 gram or above 27
Jumbo 63 gram or above 30

U.S. Department of Agriculture findings

According to the online nutrition facts database of the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) only size maters. The eggs listed on their site contain between 141 (for a 38 gram small egg) to 234 mg cholesterol (for a 63 gram jumbo egg):

How much cholesterol in an egg according: from 141 to 234 mg according to size, from the USDA nutrition facts database

Notice that these findings follow a amazingly similar mathematical ratio implying that the amount of cholesterol in an egg increases linearly with the weight of an egg. Or said in laymen’s words: according to the USDA, if your egg is twice as big, it will contain twice as much cholesterol.

Over the last 10 years, the amount of cholesterol in eggs decreased with 14%

According to the American Egg Board, 186 mg cholesterol per large egg is a decrease of 14% compared to the previous study of the USDA in 2002. In 2002, an average of 215 mg cholesterol was detected in large eggs. At the same time, the Vitamine D content of the eggs measured in 2010 has risen 64 % to 41 IU.

How can eggs have less cholesterol than before?

As an alert reader you will ask yourself the question: how is it possible that in 2010, eggs contained 14% less cholesterol than in 2002? According to an interview given to WebMD by Jacob Exler, PhD and nutritionist at the Nutrient Data Laboratory at the USDA Agricultural Research Service:

  • the reduction in egg cholesterol could be because farmers are using different henfood than before,
  • the increase in vitamine D is because some chicken diets are being supplemented with vitamin D. Because of the interest in vitamin D, more egg farmers will change their chicken feed by adding more vitamin D in the diet of the chickens.

This shows some correlation between what chickens eat and what is found in their eggs when it comes to vitamin D. However when it comes to cholesterol levels, the nutritionist expert above talks in terms of "could be".

How to reduce egg cholesterol levels even more?

Remember the expression "you are what you eat"? Remember how recent findings recommend that people need to exercise more in order to stay healthy? Could the same be true when it comes to chickens?

According to research done by Mother Earth News – The Original Guide to Living Wisely by promoting organic and sustainable farming and gardening -, pasture raised chickens contain ⅓rd less cholesterol than the standard factory farm eggs tested by the USDA:

Pastured eggs are more healthy than factory eggs

Note that according to Mother Earth News, pasture chicken eggs contain 7 times more beta carotene. Beta carotene is orange in color and gives the color to carrots. It also gives the color to the egg yolk. Which explains why the egg yolk in the eggs of the chickens raised in my moms garden are so much more yellow than the yolk from supermarket eggs.

Different sources, different findings

So we now have 2 cholesterol numbers and one claim:

  • 215 mg cholesterol / large (50 gram) egg measured by the USDA in 2002
  • 185 mg cholesterol / /large (50 gram) egg measured by the USDA in 2010
  • a claim from Mother Earth News that pasture chickens produce eggs with 1/3th less cholesterol as measured by the USDA.

What about all the other cholesterol numbers we mentioned at the beginning of this post?

According the online diet and health site Calorie Counter from about.com, most large (50 gram) eggs contain between 210 to 215 mg of cholesterol, which is similar to the USDA findings of 2002:

Nutrition facts of a raw 50 gram egg

With a daily recommended intake of 300 mg dietary cholesterol, you can eat 1 large (50 gram) egg a day that will give you 212 mg or 71% of your daily recommended intake. If you are an egg lover like me, that means that by incorporating 1 egg in your diet, means you seriously need to count the rest of cholesterol level in the other foods that you eat in order not to exceed the daily 300 mg recommended.

If you don’t like to count – like me – than smaller eggs are a good balance to enjoying the taste of eggs without going overboard with your dietary cholesterol intake:

Small white eggs nutrition facts: containing only 150 mg cholesterol

A small egg of 40 grams contains 150 mg of cholesterol. Since the 2010 USDA findings show a mathematical ratio, a 40 gram ‘USDA’ egg should contain (38/141) x 40 = 148 grams..

Summarized: comparing nutrition facts from about.com’s Calorie Counter with the USDA findings show that the cholesterol findings of

  • the small egg is equal to the 2010 research,
  • the large egg equal to the 2002 research.

How is this possible? I only notice that Calorie Count doesn’t state how they came about their findings. The USDA doesn’t go much more into detail either other than that they tested "12 flocks from all over the country", but at least they did mention the dates of their research. Knowing that the USDA has now test results that change 14% over 8 years, I do wonder why a big organization like the USDA only conducted 2 tests in the last 10 years?

Anyway, lets stay focused: we have some extra numbers from a diet and health site like Calorie Counter, we don’t know exactly where their numbers come from and we notice that the USDA doesn’t do more than 2 tests in 10 years.

Nutrition facts measured by egg manufactures

Apart from diet sites, the USDA and the sustainable organic farmers, also some egg manufacturers state the nutritional facts of their eggs.

Eggland's Eggs contain 10 mg less cholesterol compared with ordinary eggs

The findings of egg manufacturer Eggland’s Best shown on the Eggland’s Best nutrition facts page, state that their large (50 gram) eggs contain 10 mg less cholesterol than the ordinary eggs measured by the USDA.

Another manufacturer that states the nutrition facts of their eggs is Land O Lakes®. Consumeraffairs @ LandOLakes® did email me to say that unless an individual egg is tested, it is only possible to give an average for the amount of cholesterol since sizes of eggs and yolks always differ.

Pasture eggs vs organic, vegetarian, cage free and free range eggs: any difference?

Let’s have a look at the nutrition facts of the different type of eggs produced by:

No difference in cholesterol content of conventional, cage free, omega 3 and organic Land O Lakes eggs

(click image to enlarge)

Land O Lakes® omega 3 eggs, cage free eggs, all natural eggs and organic eggs: all contain the same amount of cholesterol: 215 mg per 50 gram egg.

Marketing strategies don’t reduce cholesterol in eggs

Unfortunately, some of the nice sounding labels found on eggs, don’t mean anything when it comes to reducing the amount of cholesterol in the egg. Lets go over the most used labels:

  • no label: each chicken is raised on about 20 x 20 cm (that’s 2/3th of a typical A4 page in your typical printer), in other words: flapping their wings means knocking out their neighbor hen
  • cage free: no cages yet no clear specifications about leg space
  • organic: fed with food produced from organic farming. Sounds good but "organic" doesn’t mean that the chickens are fed whole grains: organic pellets are still a form of processed food compared to real cereals like corn, wheat, sunflower seeds and crushed oats.
  • vegetarian: only plant based food. Sounds good but these chickens are clearly missing out on their complete diet of worms, bugs, small snails and insects.
  • free range: chickens have the opportunity to go out of their enclosure. Sounds good but is the most misleading of all: the American Egg Board – the communication link between the egg producers and their customers – defines free range eggs as eggs that are laid by hens raised outdoors or hens that have access to the outdoors. Nothing is mentioned what the chickens will find once they go out (a barking mad dog on concrete pavement for instance?). Worse still: if the chickens for one reason or another (like their legs are not strong enough due to space constraints or they can’t pass their neighbors because they are all standing on 20 by 20 cm) don’t go out, their eggs are still labeled as free range.

Chickens used to roam free in pastures. They started and finished their day with grains given nearby their roost. During the rest of the day they were eating a diet of grains, worms and insects: anything nutritious they could put their beak on in the pastures. Only these kind of pasture chickens according to Mother Earth News produce eggs with 1/3th less cholesterol than the USDA tested eggs. Free range, cage free, organic, vegetarian only sounds good but doesn’t reduce the amount of cholesterol in eggs.

Eggs from chicken fed with Lovastatin…

Lovastatin is a member of the statins drug class and is a medicine used for lowering cholesterol bloodlevels in humans. Robert G. Elkin and John C. Rogler published in the J. Agric. Food Chem., 1990, 38 (8), pp 1635–1641 their research in which they fed Lovastatin to chickens in order to see a 15% reduction of the amount of cholesterol in the eggs.

This research is more than 20 years old, but illustrates what can happen when the food industry teams up with the drug industry providing you eggs with less cholesterol than normal and stating on the label that no residues of the drugs administrated were detected…

Human error when stating numbers

Another reason why there are so many different cholesterol amounts stated on the Internet is simply because some person has to type in the numbers and can make a typo. A clear typo is the 681 gram heavy egg on Calorie Counter:

Errors online: a chicken egg of more than 600 grams!

Apart from this obvious error, with all the different sizes of eggs, it’s easy to forget to mention the weight of the egg and just stating the cholesterol level. Size does matter and should always be mentioned when stating the cholesterol content:

Wild Oats 70.9 gram jumbo eggs contain 270 mg cholesterol

Always do a simple check whether what you read is an error or not. If we simply follow the above mentioned USDA weight/cholesterol ratio, a 70.9 gram jumbo egg should contain: (38/141) x 70.9 = 263 mg cholesterol, so the Calorie Counter cholesterol content of 270 mg is an acceptable number.

Where to find those 1/3th lower in cholesterol pasture eggs?

If possible, rare your own chicken and feed them like they were fed 100 years ago: with organic produced grains and anything they could find on a green pasture (that’s an immense variety of wild plants, insects and flowers and not just a green, perfectly mowed lawn).

If you live in a small town or village, go and walk around until you see a sign that says "eggs for sale" or look out for the local farmers market. By all means, get to know the owner of the hens, have a look at his hens and ask to have a look at the food they are given. If the owner is a true organic pasture chicken farmer, he will be proud to answer all your questions.

On the net you can start your quest at these webpages: the products page of the Eat Wild site that informs about the benefits of raising animals on pasture and on America’s #1 organic and local food website Local Harvest.

If you live in a city and only shop in supermarkets, then try to buy the smallest eggs: 40 grams or less.

Summarized: how much cholesterol is there in an egg?

  • According to the recent findings of the USDA, a large 50 gram factory-farm egg contains 185 mg cholesterol. The previous findings of the USDA came from 2002 and stated 215 mg cholesterol/ 50 gram egg. The bigger the egg, the equally bigger the amount of cholesterol.
  • According to the sustainable-lifestyle magazine Mother Earth News, eggs from pasture raised chicken contain 1/3th less cholesterol than conventional factory farm eggs measured by the USDA.
  • Reading the nutrition fact labels on about.com’s Calorie Counter, the majority of the large eggs still state a 210 to 215 mg cholesterol content.
  • Some research showed that the cholesterol level in eggs is reduced by adding Lovastatin to a chicken’s diet.

Based on a recommended daily intake of 300 mg cholesterol, eating 1 small 40 gram egg will only count for half of your recommended daily cholesterol intake.

First time boiling an egg in 2012

1 month after receiving my blood test results that indicated a high LDL, my initial resolve to restraint from eating eggs finally caved in and I decided to cook an egg for lunch.

A soft boiled egg and a piece of bread

Lunch was a soft boiled egg and a piece of bread. Sounds meagre but well, its a simple lunch for a simple guy..

Well, if I really shouldn’t be eating eggs for the rest of my life, then I shouldn’t have eaten:

  • the butter cookies that were served around Chinese new year
  • the piece of chocolate cake dessert that my wife insisted on having when we were at our favourite restaurant
  • the yummy egg tart with not only eggs in the custard, but also in the pastry
  • the egg noodles that my wife usually cooks for a quick lunch
  • the deep fried Hainanese pork chop coated with an egg based batter that my almost 90year father in law insist on cooking for us when we go home to visit..
  •  …

As with all diets, there are excuses not to follow the diet. And when everybody tells you that you can’t eat eggs when your cholesterol is too high, it becomes difficult to swim upstream (so to speak )and justify ones cravings.

My excuse was that compared to all the above, the most healthy way of eating your eggs is simply by boiling them. No added fat nor any other ingredients…

Until I started comparing nutritional facts like e.g. the difference between a boiled egg and piece of cake. Seems my 1 egg covers 70% of the advisable daily intake of cholesterol (when following a 2000 calorie diet), compared to only 12% in the cake. When it comes to saturated fat, the amount in the cake was not even double that of an egg.

Nutritional facts compared between 1 boiled egg and 1 serving of cake

(Nutritional facts courtesy of about.com’s calorie counter)

What is important here is to note that some more objective research has to be done :-) To my amazement: eggs do contain much more cholesterol than I imagined and cakes contain less saturated fat than I feared. In other words: lots of imagination and myths versus little facts.

What is a fact is that we need cholesterol to be healthy. It is an essential component of our body cells and is made by the liver as well as extracted from our food.

My quest for this blog is to note down, share and discuss with you, what cholesterol is all about, find out when and why cholesterol becomes really bad, and how we can keep our cholesterol levels within healthy margins.