After All These Years, Eggs Are Still A Mystery

News has been buzzing the last couple of weeks about food that will slowly kill you. First it was red meat getting the flak, along with liver, but now eggs, the breakfast staple and vegetarian go-to for protein, are also to blame.

All of this is coming from the April 25 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. Here's the short version, if you've missed it: As bacteria in our guts help break down lecithin, found in egg yolks; and carnitine, a compound in mammal meat, they "burp" up trimethylamine-N-oxide, or TMAO. There are a few more steps in the process (bacteria break lecithin down into choline, digest the choline and excrete it, the liver absorbs that and releases TMAO) but you get the gist. And since high levels of TMAO are associated with heart disease, this microbial flatulence is killing us.

So this has put an end to my plan to try exotic liver pates, which I can live with (though I was really looking forward to sloth). But eggs? All those frittatas and quiches and poached eggs have been filling us with lethal bacteria waste? The Atlantic is reporting that eggs are fine, as long as you take an antibiotic right before eating. You may have thought getting up and making breakfast was already a chore. Now you have to add a pill regimen to your routine anytime you want a scramble.

But Dr. Mitch Kanter, the executive director of the Egg Nutrition Center, thinks it's too early to write eggs off the menu. "This particular research is interesting," he says, "but it's too preliminary to be pointing a damning finger at any particular food."

Public opinion about egg healthfulness has vacillated for years, especially as understanding of cholesterol has shifted. Kanter says findings about TMAO so far match what we know about cholesterol -- that high levels are associated with health problems but aren't necessarily the cause. He points out that eggs don't always keep the best company. They normally pop up with bacon, hash browns, or maybe some manner of sausage. Foods that don't generally do your heart any favors.

So not everyone is sold, including the eaters in the trenches. A Los Angeles Times poll shows that 70 percent of readers aren't any less likely to eat eggs after hearing about the study. Even Stanley Hazen, the researcher behind the study, isn't calling for a meat and egg ban.

If you're still leery you can stick to whites. The yolk seems to be the main culprit, even though it's also packed with protein and nutrients. Or you can gamble and hope that another study comes along saying that TMAO is really just a benign fart, and you can keep binging on deviled eggs in peace.

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Luke Darby
Contact: Luke Darby