On the basis of concerns from the American Heart Association and consumer groups, the Federal Trade Commission carried out successful legal action—upheld by the Supreme Court—to compel the egg industry to cease and desist from false and misleading advertising that eggs had no harmful effects on health.
Over the years, cholesterol concerns resulted in severe economic loss through a reduction in egg consumption, so the egg industry created a “National Commission on Egg Nutrition” to combat the public health warnings with ads that said things like “There is no scientific evidence whatsoever that eating eggs in any way increases the risk of heart attack.” The U.S. Court of Appeals found such outright deception patently false and misleading.
Even the tobacco industry wasn’t that brazen, trying only to introduce the element of doubt, arguing that the relationship between smoking and health remains an open question. In contrast, the egg ads made seven claims, each of which was determined by the courts to be blatantly false. The Court determined the egg industry ads were "false, misleading, and deceptive." Legal scholars note that, like Big Tobacco, the egg industry did more than just espouse one side of a genuine controversy, but flatly denied the existence of scientific evidence.
Over the last 36 years, the American Egg Board has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to convince people eggs are not going to kill them—and it’s working. From one of their internal strategy documents that I was able to get a hold of: “In combination with aggressive nutrition science and public relations efforts, research shows that the advertising has been effective in decreasing consumers concerns over eggs and cholesterol/heart health.”
Currently, they’re targeting moms. Their approach is to “surround moms wherever they are.” They pay integration fees for egg product placement in TV shows. To integrate eggs into The Biggest Loser, for example, could be a million dollars, according to their internal documents. Getting some kids storytime reading program to integrate eggs may only take half a million, though. The American Egg Board keeps track of who is, and is not, a “friend-of-eggs.” They even pay scientists $1500 to sit and answer questions like, “What studies can help disassociate eggs from cardiovascular disease?”
From the beginning, their arch nemesis was the American Heart Association, with whom they fought a major battle over cholesterol. In documents retrieved through the Freedom of Information Act featured in my 6-min video Eggs and Cholesterol: Patently False and Misleading Claims, you can see even the USDA repeatedly chastises the egg industry for misrepresenting the American Heart Association position. In a draft letter to magazine editors, the egg industry tried to say that the “American Heart Association changed its recommendations to approve an egg a day in 2000 and eventually eliminated its number restrictions on eggs in 2002,” to which the head of USDA’s poultry research and promotion programs had to explain that the “change” in 2000 wasn’t a change at all. Nothing in the guidelines or recommendations was changed. What happened was that in response to a question posed by someone planted in the audience, Heart Association reps acknowledged that even though eggs are among the most concentrated source of cholesterol in the diet, an individual egg has under 300mg of cholesterol and could technically fit under the 300 mg daily limit. In 2002, they eliminated the specific mention of eggs for consistency sake, but the American Heart Association insists that they haven’t changed their position and continue to warn consumers about eggs.
The guidelines on the AHA website at the time explained that since one egg has 213 and the limit for people with normal cholesterol is 300 you could fit an egg in if you cut down on all other animal products. If you have an egg for breakfast, for example, and some coffee, some skinless turkey breast for lunch, etc., you could end up at over 500 by the end of the day, nearly twice the recommended limit. So if you are going to eat an egg, the Heart Association instructed, we would need to "substitute vegetables for some of the meat, drink our coffee black, and watch for hidden eggs in baked goods." Furthermore, the limit for folks with high cholesterol is 200mg a day, which may not even allow a single egg a day.
This is how the senior director of nutrition education at the American Egg Board’s Egg Nutrition Center characterized the American Heart Association guidelines: “Maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but this reads like: ‘If you insist on having those deadly high cholesterol eggs your penalty will be to eat vegetables and you can’t even have the yummy steak and creamy coffee you love. Really it’s not worth eating eggs. Oh, and if you think you’ll be able to enjoy some delicious baked goods, forget it, the deadly eggs are there too!’”
I’ve also explored the presence of carcinogenic chemicals in eggs (Heterocyclic Amines in Eggs, Cheese, and Creatine?), carcinogenic viruses (Carcinogenic Retrovirus Found in Eggs), industrial pollutants (Food Sources of Perfluorochemicals and Food Sources of PCB Chemical Pollutants), the egg-borne annual epidemic of Salmonella (Total Recall), arachidonic acid (Chicken, Eggs, and Inflammation), misleading claims about eyesight nutrients (Egg Industry Blind Spot), and, of course, cholesterol (Egg Cholesterol in the Diet and What Women Should Eat to Live Longer).
To my surprise, though, eggs are actually not the most concentrated dietary source of cholesterol. See Avoiding Cholesterol Is a No Brainer.
-Michael Greger, M.D.
Image credit: Nick Wheeler/ Flickr