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SHELL GAME

Eggs are showing up on breakfast tables again after being shunned for years by people worried about cholesterol and heart disease.

In preindustrialized Korea, a fresh egg, laid by the family hen, was a coveted item reserved for the father sitting at the head of the table. If you were the favorite son, mother would sometimes sneak a fried egg into your lunch box atop the rice, but it would be a secret. Then there was the boiled egg for your once-a-year school field trip.

Back then, meat was scarce, so eggs were an important source of protein. Over time, as people became able to afford more meat, eggs lost their prestige. And recently, eggs have become scorned by a health-conscious public as the arch- enemy in the fight against cholesterol.

The American Heart Association still stands by its recommendation that individuals consume no more than 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol per day - one egg typically contain 21 milligrams. Nutritionists usually advise that people eat no more than three eggs a week.

The new interest in eating eggs comes from changes in the egg itself. "Designer eggs" produced to have less cholesterol or healthy additives now line grocers' dairy sections. Their cartons tout lures like "lower cholesterol," "smart eggs," "ginseng eggs," and "seaweed eggs." There are even "iodine eggs," "IgY eggs," and "CLA eggs." It makes you wonder if you need a degree in chemistry to buy an egg. It's no longer a question of white or brown.

Although there is little discernible difference in taste between the specialty eggs and the generic variety you buy at traditional markets, the enhanced eggs do look better, both outside and in. Their shells are shiny, having been washed, dried and coated with edible oil. The expiration date or date of production is clearly stamped on each egg, guaranteeing freshness. Their yolks are larger and more golden and the whites are firmer and run less than cheaper eggs.

The better looking eggs are made that way by feeding hens carefully controlled diets. Shell strength, for example, is determined by the amount of vitamin D and minerals in the feed, including calcium. Too little vitamin A causes the unsightly blood spots that sometimes mar the yolks. Yolk color is influenced by pigments in the feed. Size depends on the amount of protein and essential fatty acids the hens consume.

But something more than appearance is needed to convince you to pay a premium for the specialty eggs ?which typically cost three times as much as their unfancy cousins.

For a number of years now, eggs have been infused with a variety of nutrients via chicken feed. A biotechnology venture firm, Ganong Bio, produces eggs sold under the brand Cholesterol Balance that are laid by hens fed a diet that includes linseed, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease, improve brain and eye functions and boost the immune system. Each yolk in a Cholesterol Balance egg contains 600 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids, equivalent to the amount found in 100 grams of fish, according to the company.

One of the latest designer eggs to hit the market is Dr. Lee IgY Plus 4. While the name is a mouthful, it doubles as an ingredient list: The eggs were developed by Lee Nam-hyeong and contain immunoglobulin yolk with four types of antibodies.

The antibodies in the yolk counteract four nasty bacteria - helicobacter pylori, enterotoxigenic E. coli, salmonella enteritidis and salmonella typhimurium - thereby strengthening the stomach and intestines, according to Egg Biotech, the firm that developed the egg.

As many as 80 percent of Koreans are said to carry the helicobacter pylori bacterium, which causes ulcers. Antibiotics are used to kill the bacteria when they act, but the condition often recurs. Enterotoxigenic E. coli causes diarrhea, and salmonella triggers food poisoning symptoms.

Simply put, the bacteria nasties are extracted from humans and injected in the hens, which then produce the antibodies, which make it to the egg yolks. Ideally, eating the eggs will suppress the growth of the bacteria in your digestive tract.

"There have been eggs with h. pylori antibodies before, but this is the first time that a single egg yolk has been made to carry four antibodies," said Choi Woon-nak, marketing chief at Egg Biotech. To derive health benefits from these eggs, the yolks cannot be cooked; so you should eat them raw or by only cooking the whites. The antibodies are killed at 70 degrees centigrade or higher. What about the salmonella that is supposed to lurk inside raw eggs, posing a food poison threat? "Because the eggs carry the antibodies there is no chance the raw egg will cause salmonella poisoning," Mr. Choi said.

Obsessed about your teeth? The company has also developed eggs designed to prevent tooth decay. The eggs carry antibodies to a bacterium that causes cavities. Although the company claims that it is more effective than the popular xylitol gums in killing cavity-causing bacteria, sales of the eggs haven't taken off yet. But consumers can soon look forward to getting the immunoglobulin yolk as an additive in toothpastes and mouthwashes.

As eggs continue to be tinkered with, they'll pop up in plenty more places besides breakfast tables. Eggs carrying antibodies to two types of acne-causing bacteria hit the market this month, following successful clinical trials at Konkuk University Medical Center in Chungju, North Chungcheong province. Of the 25 participants in the trials, some 30 percent showed visible improvement of their acne conditions.

But if you want to try these beauty-aid eggs, don't go looking in your grocer's dairy section. They have to be massaged directly onto the face, so they're only available at beauty salons.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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