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Incredible and edible, they are indeed: contained within a delicate shell is an egg-cellent way to pack in protein, with 6.1 grams in each egg. At just 17 cents per serving, eggs are also the least expensive form of high-quality protein on the market.

Good news for eggs: the federal dietary guidelines have recently changed and they now completely recognize eggs as a healthy option even considering cholesterol. While each egg does contain 185 grams of cholesterol, this shouldn't sway your breakfast decisions. More than 40 years of research has been conducted on cholesterol metabolism and it has been found that dietary cholesterol does not significantly impact your risk for heart disease.

There are nearly as many laying hens in our state as there are people. Wisconsin is home to an average of 5.1 million egg laying hens, with 1.45 billion eggs produced annually. The egg industry accounts for nearly $130 million in value of production.

When we see our Wisconsin-produced eggs in the store, we have many choices as consumers: Grade A, Extra Large, white, brown, or cage-free, just to name a few. With all the labels on a single carton, we may find ourselves gazing into the fluorescent lighting of the egg section wondering eggs-actly what to buy.

The grade of an egg determined by regulated standards from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Grade AA is the highest quality egg, followed by Grade A and Grade B. In the grading process, eggs are inspected for both their exterior and interior quality before being sorted by size.

The exterior inspection describes cleanliness and visual defects on the shell. All eggs must be completely clean to pass grading requirements for Grade AA and Grade A, and only a small amount of staining is allowed in Grade B. The interior inspection is slightly more involved, as the eggs need to be candled in order to determine quality.

Candling of the eggs is a fairly simple process: in a dark room, the eggs are held against a light source, which allows inspectors to visualize the interior portions of the egg. Each egg has an air cell at the larger end of the egg. In Grade AA eggs, the air cell may not exceed 1/8 inch in depth and is about the size of a dime. Grade A eggs air cells are under 3/16 inch in depth, and there is no limit to the size of the air cell in Grade B eggs.

While eggs take in air as they age, the size of the air cell does not necessarily relate to freshness because size can vary greatly from the moment the chicken lays the egg. The best way to determine freshness is to use carton dates.

Shell color is not considered in USDA grading standards and there are only slight differences. The color egg a hen will lay is actually related to the color of her earlobe. Pale earlobes correspond to white eggs, while red earlobes mean the hen will lay brown eggs. There are certain breeds of chickens, like the Ameraucana, that naturally lay blue eggs.

Brown eggs tend to be slightly larger simply due to the breeds of chickens that produce them, thus costing more to produce and process which is reflected in the cost per dozen at checkout. However, many studies including research at Kansas State University show there is no nutritional difference between eggs of a different color. Bottom line, don't judge an egg by its shell entirely.

Eggs are also a sustainable source of protein. In the last 50 years, egg producers have made great strides in improving production methods with less inputs. Compared to 1960, today's egg farmers are able to feed 72% more people with 32% less water per dozen eggs, and 71% lower greenhouse gas emissions which is equivalent to taking 5.2 million cars off the road for one year. To learn more about the differences in production, visit www.incredibleegg.org.

Teyanna Loether is the 68th Alice in Dairyland

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