If you’re a ’90s kid, you might remember the moment in “Beauty and the Beast” when the hulking Gaston gulps down several raw (and in-shell) eggs, crediting this dietary choice with helping him grow to be “the size of a barge.” Of course, the consumption of raw eggs isn’t just confined to swaggering Disney villains; from protein shakes to steak tartare to meringues, uncooked egg whites and yolks play a major role in several popular dishes.
That said, plenty of diners still feel squeamish about eating raw or runny eggs due to safety concerns. Is it ever actually possible to enjoy and digest raw eggs without the risk of health complications, or are you always taking a chance with this ingredient?
We spoke with food scientists and safety experts to get their thoughts on the potential dangers and the best ways to reduce those hazards.
What are the health concerns associated with raw eggs?
When it comes to specific medical issues that can arise after eating raw eggs, one condition really dominates any conversation on the topic: salmonellosis, aka salmonella poisoning. William Li, a physician, scientist and author who focuses on the connection between what we eat and the state of our health, describes salmonellosis as a “foodborne illness caused by the bacteria Salmonella enteritidis that can contaminate improperly processed eggs.”
Symptoms of this disease ― which can include vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, malaise and chills ― occur about eight to 72 hours after eating contaminated food, according to Li, who also tells HuffPost that “in healthy people, the symptoms subside after a few uncomfortable days, and staying hydrated is all that’s needed. However, in the very young or elderly, or in people who have a compromised immune system, salmonellosis can be a life-threatening illness requiring hospitalization and antibiotics.”
Certified food safety expert Janilyn Hutchings of StateFoodSafety adds pregnant women to the list of at-risk individuals, claiming that they, along with the very young, the very old, and the immunocompromised, “are especially susceptible to getting sick from salmonella.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service considers the risk posed by salmonella poisoning a significant health concern. According to Rosemary Trout, program director and assistant clinical professor of the culinary arts and food science department at Drexel University in Philadelphia, officials “recommend that no one consume raw or undercooked eggs that are not treated to eliminate salmonella.” She says packaged raw eggs (in the shell) that haven’t been treated to destroy salmonella should have the following warning:
SAFE HANDLING INSTRUCTIONS: To prevent illness from bacteria: Keep eggs refrigerated, cook eggs until yolks are firm, and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly.
What can be done to make raw eggs safer to consume?
Luckily for egg eaters in the United States, safety regulations around egg processing are strictly enforced. Li says that “commercially available eggs in the United States undergo a rigorous cleaning process of washing to clean off bacteria, and they are kept refrigerated, which keeps them edible for up to 50 days.” All egg products you find in a store that are out of the shell and labeled as pasteurized ― such as liquid egg yolks from a carton, for example ― are “safe and bacteria-free,” Li adds, noting that some egg producers do pasteurize the entire egg, “so that the raw inside is safe to eat.”
While Li does specify that these cleaning measures won’t totally eliminate the chances of consuming the salmonella bacteria, “everyone has probably eaten some cookie dough or a soft-boiled egg and enjoyed it without any health consequences.” In his view, the risks are fairly negligible where pasteurized eggs are concerned.
Trout agrees that pasteurization goes a long way toward reducing the hazards presented by raw eggs, and she also points out a few heat-free “cooking” methods that can be used on raw eggs used in dishes like tartares and meringues: “Acid can denature egg proteins, which is essentially what heat does, but you’ll need a lot of acid to make the egg white solid, and even more to make the yolk firm.”
While a small amount of acid won’t be able to fully “cook” the egg, it can ward off the growth of harmful bacteria like salmonella. One prime example of this principle at work is the inclusion of acidic ingredients like lemon juice or vinegar in mayonnaise. In an article about the safety of mayonnaise, The New York Times said that “most commercial brands of mayonnaise contain vinegar and other ingredients that make them acidic — and therefore very likely to protect against spoilage.” The same rules apply to homemade mayonnaises, although the Times specifies that the use of pasteurized eggs in addition to acids provides a stronger chance of avoiding salmonella.
Trout also says you can add ingredients to eggs in order to reduce the risk of foodborne illness without cooking them. “For instance, adding lots of sugar binds some of the water in egg whites, reducing available water for bacterial metabolism. You can also add spices that may have antibacterial activity,” such as oregano or thyme.
Hutchings likes to play on the safe side. She says the consumption of raw eggs always poses a certain element of danger, even when the eggs are properly treated via pasteurization and the cook observes all necessary precautions.
“It’s never completely safe for humans to consume raw eggs because of the salmonella risk. The FDA recommends cooking eggs that will be served immediately to 145 F to kill any bacteria that may be on them. If the eggs will be hot-held,” such as in a chafing dish on a buffet table, “food workers should cook them to 155 F,” Hutchings explained.
“Foods are complicated systems,” Trout said, “and that includes eggs.”