An Eggceptional Source of Nutrition

Recent research demonstrates that egg consumption can have a dramatic impact on the nutrition of young children. The question is: How do we best utilize this new evidence to help improve lives around the world?

By Chessa Lutter, Senior Nutrition Researcher, RTI International, and
Visiting Research Professor, University of Maryland School of Public Health

I never set out to become an “Egg Lady.” Some people also call me a “Nutrition Eggspert.” Or an “Egghead.” I’ve heard them all.

Yet after more than 25 years covering a wide range of global nutrition issues and interventions, I have now taken on this new role with pride. I will admit it —due to my recent research, I’ve become one of eggs’ biggest fans.

There’s a lot to be said for this animal-source food’s contribution to both nutrition and economic well-being. The more you study eggs, the more you realize they are, along with breast milk, one of Mother Nature’s wonder foods. Eggs innately possess all the nutrients an embryo needs to grow; they are both nutritionally complete and offer several unique immune properties. They’re a fantastic source of protein and essential fatty acids, as well as choline, which is linked to brain development.

Around the world, in both high- and middle- to low-income countries, eggs also happen to be less expensive than many other sources of these same nutrients. In fact, in my studies I’ve found that they are the least expensive animal-source food available.

Most importantly, eggs appear to have a significant positive impact on young children’s growth, which means they can be an important tool to help fight stunting (the technical term for when children are too short for their age). While not the only sign of poor nutrition in children, stunting is often used as a proxy indicator to measure chronic undernutrition. The effects of undernutrition have been proven to inhibit other areas of one’s life, including educational attainment and lifelong earning potential.

The more you study eggs, the more you realize they are, along with breast milk, one of Mother Nature’s wonder foods.

In 2014, with funding from the Mathile Institute, I was part of an “egg” team, assembled to test the hypothesis that increased egg consumption could reduce stunting in very young children. Lora Iannotti of Washington University and Christine Stewart of the University of California-Davis were also members of the team. Focusing on an indigenous population in Ecuador where stunting was prevalent, we worked with the Universidad San Francisco de Quito to conduct a six-month study in which mothers of children aged six to nine months were provided fresh eggs to feed to their children. These mothers were also exposed to social marketing to promote the value of egg consumption for their children. This was the first-ever randomized-controlled study to link eggs to improved child nutrition, and our findings were compelling.

At the end of six months, stunting was reduced in the ‘egg’ group by 47 percent.

Children in this group also had significantly increased levels of choline, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and other biomarkers, all strongly predictive of cognitive development.

Photo credit: Gregory Reinhart.

The findings were so promising that many partners began to wonder whether similar results could be obtained in other regions where food consumption patterns are different. Christine, Lora, and I hope to answer those questions through an ongoing follow-on study in Malawi, conducted in collaboration with the University of Malawi College of Medicine with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

For now, the Ecuador study — and its conclusive findings — have helped bring attention back to the potential for eggs to improve nutrition in rural communities. From a development perspective, these interventions also raise incomes by helping resource-poor, rural families and communities to increase small-scale poultry production.

There are, however, some practical obstacles to helping families raise chickens for increased egg consumption and income. Raising free-range chickens brings environmental concerns, particularly for the young children we’re hoping to reach, as chickens are known to harbor contaminants such as E. coli. Egg-laying hens also lay three times the number of eggs each year than free-range hens, but need to be cooped and provided with appropriate feed and vaccinations. These added costs must be covered by the family.

Photo credit: Gregory Reinhart.

With these costs and benefits in mind, the application of our egg research to development programs — which continually struggle with how to better connect nutrition and economic growth interventions — is promising. I’m hopeful that donors and others will take this evidence further by working to model the pathways through which increased poultry and egg production can improve family welfare and child nutrition.

I’m also excited about further research possibilities that can help us better understand how egg consumption during pregnancy can affect maternal nutritional status and birth outcomes such as low birth weight. We can also explore how eggs can support continued growth among children who have recently recovered from severe acute malnutrition.

The possibilities are endless, but we’re only just starting to crack the egg’s potential to help children, mothers, and families get a head start at success in life.

For another perspective on this work, check out Sight & Life’s recent posting: https://sightandlife.org/blog/cracking-the-egg-potential/.

For more information on RTI’s work in food security, agriculture, and nutrition please visit https://www.rti.org/practice-area/food-security-and-agriculture.

If you like what you just read, please hit the green “Recommend” button below so that others might stumble upon this story. For more content like this, scroll down and follow RTI Intl Dev on Medium & Twitter.

RTI's #globaldev team applies science and knowledge to improve lives in developing countries around the world. An official RTI International feed.