St Ewe director Rebecca Tonks is at least honest when she addresses why the free range egg producer, which supplies a variety of hen eggs decided to start producing its Super Eggs, which are enriched with selenium. Was it in response to consumer demand?
"No. It was quite a selfish demand actually. Our family suffers from a weak gene, which causes pancreatitis. We were looking into different ways of protecting the cell wall around your pancreas, because when it's under trauma it damages cells and the cells can become cancerous later in life.
"So we were looking into ways of eating well and on our quest we came across selenium."
Selenium has traditionally been used to fortify cattle feed to promote normal health and fertility and prevent health disorders such as mastitis in cows. Research clearly indicates it helps strengthen the human immune system as well.
"We found feeding hens selenium, they absorbed it extremely well through the liver and deposited high levels into the eggs."
The eggs laid by hens on the trial feed were tested at a laboratory, verifying the high levels of the mineral.
However, levels varied seasonally, so trials were conducted for two years to observe how the process could be managed. "We test the eggs every 12 weeks to ensure the claim we are making on the egg box is what's in the eggs."
Algae, selenium and omega-3
Algae proved to be an excellent selenium source, is widely recognised as a good sustainable alternative to omega-3 fish oils and offers further benefits as well, says Tonks. "It's really high in DHA [docosahexaenoic acid] omega-3." And of course eggs are already a good source of Vitamin D.
In fact, algae, along with seaweeds, are the only plant-based sources of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and DHA long chain omega-3s.
The human body can synthesise these long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) from short chain PUFAs such linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). However, the process delivers limited quantities, so for best results, they should be consumed directly.
Benefits of long chain omega-3s
Research continues into the benefits of these essential fatty acids. Some studies suggest* long chain omega-3s have an anti-inflammatory effect, can lower blood pressure, promote cardiovascular health and combat cognitive decline and age- and disease-related decline in muscle mass.
"Two Super Eggs provide you with 75% of your recommended daily amount of selenium and 65% of DHA omega-3," Tonks says.
UFAC UK sales manager Nigel Bateson says previous research indicated long and short chain PUFAs could be transferred via feed into eggs through linseed. "The problem was in order to get sufficient in the feed, the feed was becoming unpalatable to the chickens."
In addition, Tonks says St Ewe tried eggs from linseed-fed hens in eggs sold through Asda, but there were added unpleasant complications. "Everything stank. We had a lot of linseed here and oh my goodness it does smell."
Needless to say the hens enjoy the algae-based feed more.
This is all well and good, but packing nutrients into the Super Eggs is only one part of the picture. Marketing is another and the route to making nutrition and health claims on pack is fraught with misadventure.
That said, Tonks is confident there's a clear route to what Super Eggs claim on boxes. For one thing, the criteria for EU nutrition claims still apply in UK law post-Brexit.
Tonks adds the company has worked with the British Egg Council on this area: "You have got to use the right caveats, because there isn't enough scientific research behind it to make wild claims.
"It's more about having a balanced diet. Selenium combined with Vitamin D is a really important nutritional benefit and anything to help the immune system right now is a good news story.
'High in' claim
"For selenium, 23 microgrammes (μg) [per 100g] and above is 'high in'. Our selenium level's nearer 85." For EPA and DHA omega-3, the threshold for a 'high in' claim is at least 80μg. "We are high in DHA omega-3."
Super Eggs are available at select Tesco stores and via Ocado and Cotswold Fayre in packs of six. St Ewe, which is based at Ventonwyn Farm near Truro, Cornwall is also in talks to secure a contract with Milk & More, the milk-float-style delivery business that's part of Müller UK & Ireland Group.
Via Ocado, they retail at £1.95 and have been promoted at £1.75 and Tonks considers that a good price. "There are omega-3 eggs out there for £2.40."
* See for example Expert Opinion on Benefits of Long-Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids (DHA and EPA) in Aging and Clinical Nutrition, Nutrients Vol 12, 2020 Sept; doi: 10.3390/nu12092555