2013-03-01

Co.Exist

You Can't Tell That This New, Cheap Egg Substitute Is Made From Plants

To keep a growing world population filled with nutrients, startups like Beyond Eggs are finding new ways of making protein that don’t involve the resource intensity of raising animals. Here comes the Protein Economy.

Big picture trends in agriculture and population tend to make people pessimistic. And with good reason. With the environmental impact of agriculture today (soil depletion, water pollution, vast CO2 emissions) and the generally poor treatment of farm animals, it’s hard to be panglossian about a world with more people in it, and more people eating meat.

And yet, some people aren’t bearish. They point to shifts to sustainable farming, and, more importantly, several alternative foods with less nasty impacts: products like Beyond Eggs (see below), Beyond Meat, and, yes, test-tube steaks. Here’s what Bill Gates told the venture capitalist Vinod Khosla last year:

The fact that innovation will give [us] equivalent [food] without those negative effects at lower prices is an amazing example of how linear projection misses what innovators using science will be able to do. It’s completely not part of the mainstream dialogue. Five years from now, as these products get out there, the whole view of what agriculture needs to do … will be a lot more positive.

In other words, don’t imagine that just because we’re in trouble today means we’ll be in double-trouble tomorrow. Science will come to the rescue--and not in the shape of yet more antibiotics, and ever more industrial food-production processes. What these innovators are talking about are completely new ways of making food, and particularly protein: growing it in a laboratory or engineering it from plants, because it’s too harmful (and expensive) to produce the "natural way."

Sound disgusting? Maybe. But perhaps you haven’t seen the insides of a battery chicken shed recently, or imagined how much more antibiotics we’ll have to use as the world nears 9 billion. "Our food system is abysmally broken," says Josh Tetrick, CEO of San Francisco-based Hampton Creek Foods, maker of the Beyond Eggs egg-substitute. "It’s not about the morality of eating animals or not. It’s about the conditions that a lot of these animals are raised in. These hens are kept inside a cage for two years, pumped full of feed and antibiotics, and it’s just cruel. We don’t all have to stop eating eggs. But we should ask if we want to participate in that."

Tetrick’s team has deconstructed the egg, analyzed its 22 special functions, and replicated it with plant-stuffs like sunflower lecithin, canola, peas, and natural gums from tree sap. By all accounts, the substitute tastes just like the real thing--even if it doesn’t look like it. It’s sold as a gray-green powder that you need to hydrate before use.

Tetrick, who eats only plant-based food himself, insists he’s not on an anti-meat crusade. He applauds that companies like Chipotle are turning to sustainable sources of meat. The main idea is to replace the eggs currently used to make things like mayonnaise, ranch dressing, and factory-made muffins or cookies (i.e. not your Sunday fry-up). That’s about a third of the 79 billion eggs laid in the U.S. every year.

At the moment, Hampton has two major Fortune 500 customers--one of which plans to market that its products are egg-free, and another that wants to keep the fact quiet for now. "We’re just removing the eggs that we have an issue with. We don’t care if they want to just save money. That’s fine," he says. Beyond Eggs is 18% cheaper than battery-produced eggs.

Tetrick sees a smaller retail business selling to vegans, and the cholesterol-conscious. Beyond Eggs will be available online in the next two weeks, and probably from major retailers after that.

Beyond that, he wants to feed people who are likely to go hungry without interventions in the protein supply system. "I think the reason people like Bill Gates are interested in this is that the world population is expanding to 9 billion, and people are going to need good cheap sources of protein. Some of the economics of meat production, particularly around feed, aren’t good."

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12 Comments

  • DanielHooley

    This is a very exciting development! As for the retail version, how soon will this be available online? And are there plans for a retail egg substitute that would make scrambled eggs?

  • Christianne

    Hi Dan! We've been working super hard on Beyond Eggs for Cookies and we just about ready to launch it. We'll be sending out our samples in early June and it will be available online for purchase in early June as well.  We are also currently refining our Beyond Eggs product for food service (scrambled eggs, omelettes etc) and hope to have that rolled out in the near future! -Christianne

  • DanielHooley

    This is a very exciting development! As for the retail version, how soon will this be available online? And are there plans for a retail egg substitute that would make scrambled eggs?

  • Ken Lonyai

    In principle, this all makes sense and sounds wonderful, however, as reported here and displayed on the company's web site, there's a lot of smoke and mirrors. In reality, this yet another factory made food. Potato chips are all plant based and vegetarian, but it does not make them a healthy food. Canola oil? Essentially a highly refined non-nutritive oil that is GMO - even the versions that try to be organic are compromised.

    To have the author quote Gates on food underlines that this is not a food but rather a product. Gates is invested in Monsanto and a pusher of GMO's and has no true understanding of the world food situation or does and is trying to manipulate it for his interests.

    Maybe if Hampton Creek came clean about all their ingredients, how much each is processed, sources, GMO's, etc., there would be something worth considering, but as it stands, Beyond Eggs is one more product to be very wary about.

  • Josh Tetrick

    Hey Ken - Well, if you make it out here, we'd welcome you. Ingredients are processed about as much as the pea flour you'd buy from your local, organic grocery store. Which is to say very little. We do not use GMOs in most of our products, and are working to remove GMOs from all of them. Unlike most eggs, antibiotics are not used in our process. No cages, either. Less water, too. When we're in the marketplace, each and every ingredient will be listed on the back of each and every product. For now, and because of IP reasons, I can tell you that we use a variety of natural plant-based sources, including peas, chickpeas, and sorghum. 

  • Ken Lonyai

    Thanks Josh, but I'm on the east coast so why don't you simply address the issues publicly in writing?

  • Josh Tetrick

    Hey Ken - If you're in the SF area, we'd love you to visit our HQ and meet with our team. Unlike most egg production facilities, we're excited to welcome visitors from around the world to see what our team is up to. Email me at jtetrick@hamptoncreekfoods.com if you're interested. - Josh 

  • Anonymous

    Fascinating! While you're answering questions...

    "Tetrick’s team has deconstructed the egg, analyzed its 22 special functions, and replicated it with plant-stuffs like sunflower lecithin, canola, peas, and natural gums from tree sap."
    Could you make a comparison of the environmental impact of producing a 'real' egg as opposed to the environmental impact of producing this alternative? So not just the synthesis, but also the production of the raw materials? I can imagine it should be way lower, considering hens have to be fed as well (not to mention the antibiotics)... but yeah, just curious.

  • Josh Tetrick

    Really important question. Right now, we're about 17% less carbon intensive than a battery cage egg. Less water, too. And no antibiotics needed because we don't require female birds. - Josh

  • Josh Tetrick

    If you have any questions about our work on plant-based eggs, I'll be on here this weekend to answer them. Thanks for taking the time to read about our work at Beyond Eggs. - Josh 

  • Anonymous

    Why is everyone so fast (pun intended) to talk about how they aren't doing this to help animals? What's wrong with helping animals? Do you feel like you have to apologize for not wanting to exploit hens for their eggs?

  • Josh Tetrick

    We are doing this for animals (especially female birds packed in dirty cages) the environment, and our health. You know, people don't have to be perfect... to be good. And we focus on action instead of the dogma of perfection. Here if you ever have questions. - Josh, CEO of the company in the article