Turns out, Rocky Balboa was onto something with his famous liquid breakfast. Compared to their cooked counterparts, raw eggs are higher in certain important nutrients. But we’ve all heard warnings that eating uncooked liquid chicken is basically a death trap. So who’s right?
COOKED VS RAW EGGS: THE NUTRIENTS
As with all practically everything nutrition-related, the answer isn’t black and white. It’s true that the cooking process destroys a tiny amount of some of the vitamins and minerals found in eggs. Raw eggs are slightly higher in B vitamins (like vitamin B6 and folate), vitamin E, the mineral choline, and the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin. But the difference is so small that it’s basically insignificant, says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, author of Three Steps to a Healthier You. Case in point: You’ll get .085 micrograms of vitamin B6 and 146.9 milligrams of choline from a raw egg, versus .072 micrograms of B6 and 117 milligrams choline from a cooked one.
And when it comes to protein, cooked eggs come out as the clear winner. The body is only able to absorb about 50 percent of the protein from a raw egg, compared to 91 percent of the protein from a cooked egg, according to one Journal of Nutrition study. (Heat changes the structure of eggs’ protein molecules in a way that makes them more digestible.)
“That means raw eggs would provide only 3g of digestible protein, compared to 6g of digestible protein from a cooked egg,” Rumsey says.
But those aren’t the only reasons why cooked eggs might be a better choice. Raw eggs can harbor Salmonella, a type of bacteria that’s responsible for around a million cases of food poisoning annually, according to CDC estimates. Of course, raw eggs don’t account for all of those cases—you can also get Salmonella from poultry, meat, raw milk, cheese, or even contaminated fruits and vegetables. But they do make up a significant portion. Between 1985 and 2002, contaminated eggs accounted for 53 percent of all Salmonella cases reported to the CDC. Cooking the eggs eliminates that risk, Rumsey says. That’s why major health organizations like the CDC say you should steer clear of ones that are raw or lightly cooked.
SO, SHOULD YOU EVER GO RAW?
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether the small vitamin and mineral boost is worth getting less protein and a possible case of food poisoning. Salmonella is most likely to strike in kids, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems. “If you’re a healthy adult, you’re less likely to get [sick], especially if you take steps to minimize your risk,” says Harriet Whiley, PhD, an environmental biologist who studies public health at Flinders University in Australia. “However, there’s always a small chance.”
If you do opt to go raw, there are some steps you can take to minimize your risk for getting sick. Buying pasteurized eggs—which are heat-treated to kill bacteria—is one option. But like cooking, the pasteurization process could cause your raw eggs to have slightly lower levels of some vitamins and minerals, Rumsey says. So it might not be the best choice if you’re seeking out raw eggs specifically for the nutrition boost.
Whether you opt for pasteurized eggs or not, don’t automatically assume that free-range ones are safer, either. Caged hens might be more susceptible to Salmonella infection due to stress, but the controlled setting is easier to keep clean, explains Whiley. Free-range hens are less susceptible to getting a stress-related infection, but findings show that they could be more likely to contract Salmonella from their environment. “An egg may come in contact with contaminated feces, either from the chicken or from other animals carrying Salmonella,” Whiley explains.
Also, avoid eggs that are cracked, especially if they aren’t pasteurized—cracked eggs up the odds that bacteria on the surface of the shell could get inside of the egg. Even if you’re tempted to eat them, you’re better off just throwing them away, says Whiley.
This article first appeared on Rodale's Organic Life.