Brown and White Eggs, Unscrambled

Many listeners were disturbed by an April 15 interview that attempted to explain why some eggs are white and some are brown. Debbie Elliott conducted exhaustive follow-up research into the subject and shares her findings.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. We certainly stirred up a hornet's nest, or rather a hen's nest, last weekend with our interview about white eggs and brown eggs. It seemed uncontroversial at the time when Marie Simmons, the author of a cookbook called The Good Egg, told me that white-feathered chickens lay white eggs and brown-feathered chickens lay brown eggs.

Well, the mail came pouring in, to us and to the NPR blog Mixed Signals. Most comments were from outraged poultry enthusiasts of one feather or another who swear that feather color is not the determining factor.

Your egg expert clearly knows next to nothing about chickens, wrote listener Evelyn Knight(ph), and from Tom Fiarello(ph), I really expect better from NPR, especially ATC, to which I've listened for 35 years. Then there was seven-year-old Noah(ph) from Wetumpka, Alabama, who has four chickens and wrote, That is so not true.

Well, with so many feathers ruffled, we decided to launch a full-scale journalistic investigation. The answer is a little complicated. We've done our best to unscramble it for you. The most reliable way to predict whether a chicken will lay a brown egg or a white egg is to look at its earlobes. Yes, chickens have earlobes.

Chickens with white earlobes lay white eggs. Those with red earlobes lay brown eggs. But in defense of our guest, cookbook author Marie Simmons, let us state clearly that there is a close correlation between earlobe color and feather color, especially in commercial chickens, and Marie Simmons did get her information from the very reputable American Egg Board. You know, the people who came up with the incredible edible egg?

One of the people we called to crack this case was Dr. Hillary Thesmar of the Egg Nutrition Center. She pointed out that most lay people don't actually believe chickens have earlobes, so it's just easier to talk feathers. But rules, like eggs, were made to be broken, so there are some brown-feathered chickens that have white earlobes and lay white eggs, and vice versa.

We also called Richard Gast, a microbiologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Egg Safety and Quality Research Unit. He fessed up. He'd never really given chicken earlobe color a moment's thought, but he generously tried to redirect our energies. He said the main reason the white-shelled eggs are more popular in the U.S. is that the chickens who lay them are smaller, eat less feed, and are therefore more cost efficient as egg producers.

There it is in an eggshell. Now, if only we could answer which came first.

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