Can Vegans Eat Egg Whites?


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I think this question comes from folks who are not yet familiar with the differences between the various plant-based diets—vegans vs. vegetarians vs. flexitarians, etc.

Is it vegan? No, eggs are never considered vegan—whites or yolks, scrambled, over easy, sunny side up, Rocky Balboa style. You get the idea. Ethical and Eco vegans find the egg industry reprehensible, and health vegans abstain from eating animal products in general.

If you’re in a rush, the absolute best vegan egg white alternative on the market can be found here. I’ve tried them and they are basically indistinguishable from real egg whites–at least, when scrambled (I’ve yet to use them in baking applications). They’re so realistic because of how the plant proteins coagulate during the cooking process. 

Anyway, what I’m not sure about, is why this common inquiry focuses on egg whites. Perhaps the question primarily comes from health vegans who wonder whether the egg white, being water, albumin, etc. may be healthy to eat despite being derived from animals. While it is true that the egg white portion has less saturated fat and cholesterol, it’s not completely free of toxins.

What we’ll do here is cover all of the reasons vegans abstain from eggs (including egg whites).

Concerns for Animal Welfare

Hens Are Kept in Terrible Conditions

Currently, worldwide the majority of commercial egg-laying hens are kept in conventional cages—what are known as battery cages.1

This cage system was developed back in the 1930s as an alternative to barn and free-range production systems. The alternative was sought because free-range and barn production systems exposed hens to a number of risks (health due to the elements, predation risks, etc.).

Obviously, the concerns about such risks were economic and not related to animal-welfare in itself. Conventional cages proved to be much more economically efficient than those that preceded their use. They were so efficient, such that they were used by most developed countries over the next 30 years.

However, as the use of these conventional cages became more widespread, so to did concerns about the welfare of the hens housed in them. The public took notice fairly quickly the way in which these small enclosures constrained the behavior of the hens.

Basically, the measures taken to address concerns for the hens’ physical health resulted in their being placed in housing systems that gave rise to a new set of problems—hens were no longer able to perform their natural bodily functions.

Around 1960, a few reports came out outlining the effects of these caging systems. The UK government report on intensive animal farming systems exposed the way in which the production systems restricted the movement of hens such that that the animals could not sit, lie down, stand, turn around or groom without restriction.2

Hence, the rise in public awareness surrounding the welfare of hens began to gain more and more attention. Some countries have taken measures to improve the conditions in which the animals are kept. Some outright banned the use of these cages.

The EU adopted minimum space standards for conventional cages, and when that wasn’t enough to assuage public concerns, they banned the use of conventional cages in 1999 to take effect in 2012.3

Several European countries followed by independently passing legislation banning the cages immediately or, at the very least, added additional regulations.4,5

There is some legislation in the works, but as of now, the US has NOT gotten the message. There is currently no framework for federal regulation of animal food production industries focusing strictly on animal welfare.6

Baby Chicks Are Slaughtered–Often Grinded Up While Still Alive

The term chick culling refers to the process by which newly hatched poultry are killed shortly after being hatched and sexed—chick “sexing” is where trained experds distinguish the sex of hatchlings.8

If it’s female, the chicken will be put into a breeding program where it exists in misery until it’s no longer viable for egg production and is killed off.

If the hatchling is determined to be male, it’s deemed useless because male chickens don’t lay eggs. A small percentage go on to be assigned to breeding programs where they fertilize eggs for a time before being slaughtered for meat. Most, however, are killed immediately, often without anaesthetics.

Methods include:9,10

  • Asphyxiation by carbon dioxide
  • Cervical dislocation
  • Maceration by a high-speed grinder.

Bottom Line

Hens used to lay eggs are kept in tiny little boxes where they can’t sit, turn around, groom, or lie down without extreme restriction. Most live their entire lives without ever seeing the sun. Their reproductive systems are constantly exploited so that they lay as many eggs as possible. By eating eggs you are contributing to the ongoing suffering of this species.

Health Concerns

Then there are the health issues. A lot of plant-based eaters are primarily concerned with physical health, so we’ll cover this topic here.

Egg whites have long been touted as being a healthy food choice. And compared to yolks they certainly are—egg whites are fat-free, and thus free of saturated fat. They’re basically pure protein and water. What could be wrong with that?

Decreased Iron Absorption

There are plenty of plant-based foods that impede iron absorption, and we vegans have a hard enough time getting sufficient iron in the diet. So, the last thing we need is another barrier to getting sufficient iron.

Anyway, eggs contain what are known as phosphoproteins, compounds that bind iron impairing its absorption. Unlike with biotin, the whites needn’t be raw to have this effect. In fact, studies have shown just one hardboiled to reduce iron absorption by as much as 28%.

Allergies and Food Intolerances

I’m sure you’ve heard of the big 8 allergens—these are the allergens common enough such that they must be included on food labels if present. The most common food allergens include milk, egg, soy, wheat, peanut, tree nut, shellfish, and fish. These eight foods account for the majority of positive food skin-prick tests.7

Egg is one of the few foods that account for the vast majority of IgE-mediated reactions. Of course, plant foods aren’t exactly innocent in this respect. But it’s still one more reason why eating egg whites can be bad for health. Albumin is the offending protein, and egg whites happen to be loaded with the stuff.

Egg white also contains histamine-releasing agents which can result in hives (“urticaria”), eczema, pruritus, and GI issues such as diarrhea. As I covered in the article on diarrhea, certain foods stimulate the release of histamine from mast cells via mechanisms that are clear.

Foodborne Illness

Foodborne illness is another huge problem posed by egg consumption, usually due to improper preparation practices.

  1. Salmonella. Get infected by this stuff and diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever are par for the course. While you can get salmonella from unwashed fruits and veggies, the ingestion of insufficiently cooked eggs is most associated with this infection.
  2. Shigellosis. This nasty infection results in fever, stomach cramps, and bloody diarrhea. It’s even associated with seizures in young children. Eggs and other animal products such as dairy tuna, chicken, and meat are known to carry this infection.
  3. Staphylococcus aureus. This is a type of bacteria that are commonly found on the hair and skin and in the throats and noses of people and animals. As such, it commonly results from eating animal products including eggs, poultry, pork, meat, tuna salads, stuffing, and cream-filled pastries. It results in nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, retching, and prostration.
  4. Streptococcus pyogenes. A species of Gram-positive Streptococcus bacteria. It results in tonsillitis, sore throat, pain from swelling, high fever, nausea, vomiting, headache, rhinorrhea, malaise, and rash. It’s most associated with the consumption of animal products such as eggs, milk, ice cream, lobster, ham, and shrimp salad—especially when such foods are allowed to sit at room temp for too long a period.

Conclusion

That only scratches the surface. The egg industry is as inhumane as it gets. And if you live in the US, you can rest assured that the conditions hens are kept in live up to everything you’ve heard.

As for eating yard eggs (eggs from chickens raised humanely), this is largely looked down on by the vegan community. PETA wrote an article on it you can check out here.

In this day and age there really is no excuse for eating eggs. The plant-based food industry is churning out more and more products as we speak—some of which are ultra-realistic. They’re using deep learning to track down plant-based alternatives to common animal-derived ingredients and have had lots of success.

This technology allows for food manufacturers to find natural ingredients that they never would have thought to use in the past. For example, researchers at JUST (a company known for their vegan mayo) found a certain protein in the obscure mungbean of all places that happen to coagulate just like the proteins found in egg whites.

As for cooking, there’s chia seeds, flax seeds, applesauce, you name it. Any sort of plant food that gels up when hydrated tends to work pretty well as a binder. A quick google search and you’ll be able to find a whole range of options to choose from.

Anyway, that wraps it up for now. See you in the next article.

References

  1. Mench, J.A., Sumner, D.A. and Rosen-Molina, J.T. (2011) Sustainability of egg production in the United States – the policy and market context. Poultry Science 90, 229–240.
  2. Brambell, F.W.R. (1965) Report of the Technical Committee to inquire into the welfare of animals kept under intensive livestock husbandry systems. Command Paper 2836. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London.
  3. Savory, C.J. (2004) Laying hen welfare standards: a classic case of ‘power to the people’. Animal Welfare 13, S153–S158.
  4. Appleby, M.C. (2003) The European Union ban on conventional cages for laying hens: history and prospects. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 6, 103–121.
  5. Jendral, M. (2005) Alternative layer hen housing systems in Europe. Alberta Egg Producers and Alberta Farm Animal Care Association.
  6. Sustainable Animal Agriculture (Page 45). Ermias Kebreab – Cabi – 2014
  7. Nowak-Wegrzyn A, Muraro A: Food protein-induced enterocolitis syndrome, Curr Opin Allergy Clin Immunol 9:371, 2009.
  8. Krautwald-Junghanns, ME; Cramer, K; Fischer, B; Förster, A; Galli, R; Kremer, F; Mapesa, EU; Meissner, S; Preisinger, R; Preusse, G; Schnabel, C; Steiner, G; Bartels, T (1 March 2018). “Current approaches to avoid the culling of day-old male chicks in the layer industry, with special reference to spectroscopic methods”. Poultry Science. 97 (3): 749–757.
  9. Saul, H. (March 5, 2015). “Hatched, discarded, gassed: What happens to male chicks in the UK”. Retrieved July 1, 2015.
  10. Blakemore, Erin (2016-06-13). “Egg Producers Pledge More Humane Fate for Male Chicks”. Smithsonian.

Drew Davis

Hi! I'm Drew and this is the place where I nerd out about vegan and plant-based diets. I have a BS in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Alabama and have taken dozens of classes in areas like organic and biochemistry, food science, medical nutrition therapy, nutritional genomics, and vegetarian diets. I'm still learning every day, and on this blog, I'll be sharing everything I discover about vegan diets as I go.

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