Egg whites are a nutritious, economical food, containing over 3 grams of high quality protein in each serving, along with a number of important vitamins and minerals. For this reason, some people add egg whites to protein shakes or health smoothies, while discarding the egg yolk to avoid unnecessary cholesterol. However, both whole eggs and egg whites can present serious health risks when eaten raw.
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Raw Eggs and Salmonella
Eggs can become infected with a type of bacteria known as salmonella. When eggs are cooked, salmonella and other bacteria are killed, neutralizing any potential health threats. Salmonellosis is a bacterial illness that lasts for four to seven days and can present symptoms including vomiting, fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. While salmonellosis can be severe, requiring hospitalization, most people recover without antibiotic treatments. In addition to cooking eggs, it is important to avoid cross-contamination by utensils that make contact with raw eggs.
According to a 2002 article published in "Risk Analysis," of the 69 billion eggs produced each year, approximately 2.3 million are contaminated with salmonella. About one in every 30,000 eggs is infected with salmonella. The article reports that salmonella from eggs causes 661,333 human illnesses each year. Of these illnesses, 94 percent recover without medical intervention, 5 percent require a physician, 0.5 percent require hospitalization and 0.05 percent of the illnesses result in death. Eating raw egg whites regularly sharply increases your risk of contracting salmonella.
If you can't live without raw egg whites, there is a way you can consume uncooked eggs without any risk of becoming exposed to salmonella. Pasteurization is a process that heats foods to a temperature that kills any potentially dangerous bacteria. You can purchase store-bought pasteurized eggs heated just enough to kill any bacteria, without cooking the egg. Alternatively, you can purchase liquid egg whites, which are always pasteurized. The majority of whole eggs sold in grocery stores are not pasteurized, so you must verify that they are pasteurized, if you choose this route.
Egg Whites and Biotin
Another risk unique to egg whites has nothing to do with pathogens. According to MedlinePlus, raw egg whites carry a substance that binds strongly with biotin and prevents it from being used by the body. Deficiency in biotin, also known as vitamin B-7, can cause a number of symptoms, including thinning of the hair, skin rash, depression, tingling sensations and exhaustion. MedlinePlus notes that eating two or more egg whites per day, for a period of several months or longer, can cause severe biotin deficiency. If you do choose to drink raw egg whites, it may be safest to limit your consumption.