Eggs are incredibly nutritious, as a rich source of protein, fat, and a wide range of essential vitamins and minerals.
But how do eggs fit into a modern understanding of nutrition? How are eggs classified? What food group are eggs in?
The USDA places eggs in the “protein” food group with meat, poultry, seafood, and other high-protein foods. However, although eggs are in this group with meat, they aren’t meat. This categorization underscores their significance as a protein-rich food source.
Let’s learn more about how eggs are classified.
Are Eggs Dairy?
Eggs are not dairy. Dairy products are produced from the milk of certain mammals, like cows and goats. Dairy products include milk, cream, butter, cheese, yogurt, etc.
Eggs are often psychologically linked to dairy products and are frequently kept in a similar location in the supermarket.
Both eggs and dairy products are strongly associated with farms; they often need to be stored at cool temperatures and are staple foods that are essential for thousands of different dishes, recipes, and food preparations.
However, although strong mental and cultural associations link eggs and dairy, and they are often kept in the same aisle in the grocery store, eggs are not dairy products. It’s important to distinguish between these two categories of foods to make informed dietary choices.
Are Eggs Meat?
Eggs are not meat. Meat is usually an animal’s muscle tissue (although sometimes we also eat organ tissue).
On the other hand, an egg is a container full of nutrients intended to nourish a growing embryo until it hatches.
An egg’s shell acts as a packet to contain the nutrients and often provides some protection for an embryo. Since eggs have no flesh or tissue, they are not meat.
A common misconception about eggs is that they contain an embryo or chicken fetus, which might cause them to be classified as meat.
However, freshly gathered eggs do not contain an embryo at all. This is because most chickens in egg production are not exposed to a rooster, thus never mate.
Although adult hens lay an egg approximately every 24 hours for most of the year, if they have never bred, the eggs are never fertilized and will never hatch into a chick under any circumstances. Understanding this fact helps clarify the distinction between eggs and meat in terms of dietary categorization.
What Category Are Eggs in the Food Pyramid?
In the food pyramid used from 1992-2005, and today in the USDA’s MyPlate nutritional guidelines (more on this below), eggs are included in the protein food group.
According to the MyPlate guidelines, an adult eating 2,000 calories a day should eat 5.5 ounces of foods in the protein food group.
The average small egg is 1.5 ounces, while an average large egg is 2 ounces of protein.
The inclusion of eggs in the protein food group highlights their role as a protein-rich food option within a balanced diet.
The USDA has updated the classic food pyramid into new nutritional guidelines called MyPlate.
Instead of a pyramid shape, with grains on the bottom and fat at the peak, the MyPlate system divides the diet into proportions, consisting of the basic five food groups:
The fruit food group consists of fruit juices and fresh, canned, frozen, dried, and pureed fruit.
The vegetable food group includes dark green vegetables, red and orange vegetables, starchy vegetables, and other vegetables like mushrooms and avocados.
Beans and peas are foods that are included in both the vegetable group and the protein group because they have vital nutrients from both food groups.
The grain food group includes whole and refined grains, with foods like whole wheat bread, oatmeal, pasta, etc.
The protein food group consists of seafood, meat, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, and soy.
The dairy food group includes milk, yogurt, and cheese.
The MyPlate system emphasizes the importance of a balanced diet that includes protein-rich foods like eggs alongside fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy products. Eggs contribute to the overall diversity of the diet.
Are Eggs Considered Vegetarian?
Because eggs can be harvested and eaten without harming the chicken, they’re usually considered an acceptable food for vegetarians, who try to eat a diet that doesn’t require killing animals.
However, there are many different types of vegetarians, with other dietary choices and allowances.
Here are some of the most popular types of a vegetarian diet:
The most popular type of vegetarian diet is the lacto-ovo-vegetarian.
These people eat a plant-based diet, along with dairy products and eggs. They do not eat meat, poultry, or animal flesh, including fish and shellfish.
Some subtypes are lacto-vegetarians, who eat dairy but not eggs, or ovo-vegetarians (also called “veggans”), who eat eggs but not dairy products.
A pescatarian diet includes lacto-ovo-vegetarian foods—plants, dairy, eggs, fish, and seafood.
Pescatarians do not eat meat from land animals like chicken, beef, pork, and the like.
Vegans do not eat any food that comes from animals and eat only food that comes from plants.
Therefore, vegans do not eat meat, poultry, fish, or seafood, and vegans also do not eat eggs, dairy, honey, gelatin, or other animal-derived foods.
Flexitarians are people who basically eat a vegetarian diet but who occasionally do eat meat or fish.
Some people eat raw foods, paleo, macrobiotic, and other diets, each with particular guidelines for eggs.
Many vegetarians and vegans trying to choose responsibly and sustainably raised and harvested food are concerned about the source and origins of their food.
For example, some may want to eat a diet that doesn’t kill animals nor does any harm to animals.
Those people may not eat mass-produced and factory-farmed eggs but may eat free-range, organic, and hormone-free eggs.
They may also choose pasture-raised dairy, wild-caught fish, and similar types of foods.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult and time-consuming to research the origins of foods and make choices based on animal and environmental welfare, rather than simply choosing different categories of foods.
Understanding the various categories of vegetarian diets and their approach to eggs helps individuals make dietary choices that align with their ethical and environmental values. Different types of vegetarians have varying perspectives on the consumption of eggs.
When it comes to eggs, here are some of the ethical and environmental considerations that people pay attention to.
The term “cage-free” means that the chicken is free to walk, nest, and engage in other natural behaviors. It does not mean they have access to the outdoors or a natural environment.
Free-range means that the chickens are uncaged, free to walk and engage in behaviors, and have access to the outdoors.
Pasture-raised chickens are free-range chickens, but the term implies that the outdoor area is a natural pasture landscape.
Therefore, the chicken might supplement their diet by foraging naturally.
A vegetarian-fed chicken has had a diet free of animal by-products.
It’s important to note that chickens will naturally eat bugs, worms, seeds, and vegetables, so chickens are not naturally vegetarian or vegan.
However, commercial feed free of animal by-products is healthier and more natural than a commercial feed full of meat by-products.
Certified Organic is a federal standard administered and enforced by the USDA.
It requires that chickens be cage-free, pasture-raised, fed a vegetarian, organic diet, and free of pesticides and antibiotics.
Only the term “Certified Organic” is a legal standard that requires compliance.
All other egg-labeling terms can be used subjectively, with different definitions from one company to another.
For the most consistent interpretation of animal welfare guidelines, choose USDA Certified Organic.
You may also look for third-party, independent certifications like Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, and other organizations with voluntary animal health and welfare standards.
Consumers concerned about the treatment of chickens and the environmental impact of egg production can make informed choices by understanding the various labels and certifications associated with egg products. These labels can provide insight into how the chickens were raised and the conditions they lived in.
Eggs, brown or white, are not meat and can be harvested without harming the chicken.
In addition, commercially produced eggs are not fertilized and do not have the potential to hatch into an animal. They are also extremely high in protein and nutrition.
For these reasons, many vegetarians eat eggs, although they may choose organic or cage-free eggs for animal welfare.
Vegans typically do not eat eggs because they do not believe in exploiting animals for human food.
However, these categories of diet and preference are personal choices that don’t easily fit into groups and categories.
Despite dietary preferences, eggs are a healthy source of protein and a food eaten for thousands of years.
They’re neither meat nor dairy but in a category all their own, within the protein food group.