Georgia’s incredible edible eggs about to be officially healthy?

It looks like eggs — for decades, one of the most polarizing foods in health circles — are about to land sunny side up.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed a sweeping redefinition of what should be considered healthy foods and what companies can legally label as such.

Key Georgia products would be among the biggest winners under the plan: chicken eggs, pecans and peanuts (but not peanut butter).

Other grocery items that could get the thumbs-up for the first time include higher fat fish such as salmon, some other nuts, seeds and oils, and water (disqualified until now for lacking nutrients).

Among everyday staples in line for the heave-ho: yogurt and breakfast cereals that include significant added sugar, and white bread made of refined grains.

It’s the latest major government foray into the constantly shifting debate over what’s good and bad for Americans as new scientific research surfaces and producers push to market their food as healthy.

The latest shakeup is being fueled in large part by a reweighting of saturated fat (versus total fat), cholesterol and added sugar – plus plenty of possible exemptions — as regulators try steering Americans to healthier options.

“More than 80% of people in the U.S. aren’t eating enough vegetables, fruit and dairy. And most people consume too much added sugars, saturated fat and sodium,” the FDA said.

Consumers’ perceptions about what foods are healthy often directly impacts what they buy, said Travis Smith, a University of Georgia associate professor who specializes in economics tied to food policy.

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Perhaps no major Georgia food product has had as scrambled of a health image as eggs.

“Eggs keep going back and forth with they are good for you or they are not good for you,” Smith said.

Chicken eggs, which are packed with proteins and other nutrients, but also cholesterol and saturated fat, would benefit from two crucial FDA moves.

The plan would dump dietary cholesterol as a crucial measure in determining food benefits, because many foods with that issue are dinged by the limit on saturated fat.

The agency also would create loopholes for eggs and certain other foods it considers “nutrient dense,” forgiving them for high levels of saturated fat, which poses a risk to heart health.

The FDA proposal would for the first time also adopt a limit on added sugar, drop a limit on total fat while concentrating instead on saturated fat, and focus on moving people away from too much sodium in their diets.

About 14% of food products currently qualify for the existing “healthy” claim, according to the FDA. That would fall to about 11% under the changes, though that figure could increase if manufacturers shift their ingredients to healthier options as the agency hopes.

It could be a while until consumers see changes on packaging, with some food producers contesting changes after the FDA opened its proposals to public comment in late September and extended the comment period to Feb. 16. Even when the rules are set, which could be months away, the government has proposed a compliance date for packaging three years after they become effective.

Chicken eggs have been a part of human diets for millennia. U.S. per capita egg consumption is nearly 280 eggs a year, the equivalent of eating an egg at least five days a week. Georgia is a top 10 producer state, rolling out 2.7 billion table eggs in 2021.

In 1968 the American Heart Association recommended that individuals curtail the amount of cholesterol they consume daily and eat no more than three whole eggs per week. Many Americans scaled back or switched to just egg whites and chucking out yolks, where cholesterol is concentrated.

The egg industry fought back in the 1970s with a sing-along advertising tag line: “the incredible edible egg.” And it promoted other research showing eggs were healthy rather than harmful.

The American Heart Association eventually dropped its recommended three-egg weekly limit, though it continued to suggest limiting dietary cholesterol in daily diets. And some research even in recent years suggests consumption of eggs is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

More recently, many Americans also have been weighing sticker shock: the price of a dozen large Grade A eggs in November was more than double what it was a year earlier, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

The American Egg Board said its key product is “an all-around nutrient powerhouse” and said the FDA’s proposed change “aligns with current scientific research.”

The American Heart Association has been more nuanced in its reaction to the FDA’s proposals and said it is still reviewing them.

It recommends that people limit their serving size to one or two egg whites, or a small handful of whole nuts or two tablespoons of nut butter with the lowest amount of sodium, said Erin Thomas, a spokesperson for the association’s metro Atlanta chapter.

“Bottom line,” she said, “eggs, peanuts, and pecans are a good source of protein and other nutrients and can be part of a healthy eating pattern; however, people should be aware of their risk factors for cardiovascular disease and incorporate such products into their diets in moderation to ensure optimal health.”

The United States Peanut Federation, meanwhile, is hoping to convince the FDA to expand proposed loopholes so that more peanut butter can carry a “healthy” label despite its added sugar. That’s a big deal for Georgia, which produced half the nation’s domestic supply of peanuts in 2021.

“Peanut butter is an affordable and readily available product that has many health benefits,” wrote federation chairman Karl Zimmer. He proposed that the added sugar limit for peanut butter be raised to that proposed for dairy products such as yogurt.

Other parts of the food industry also are pushing back.

For example, tart U.S.-grown Montmorency cherries are nutrient rich but not naturally sweet, so producers add sugar. That disqualifies the dried cherries from being labeled as healthy under the FDA’s proposal, which the Cherry Marketing Institute complains “disadvantage tart fruits in the marketplace as compared to other dried fruits.”