We might never learn which came first, the chicken or the egg, but we already know what’s coming next: the chicken-less egg.
Old-fashioned eggs are delicious and versatile, but nowadays most are produced in industrial factory farms, a system that requires a lot of energy, is highly polluting and involves force-feeding cramped, beak-less birds. So San Francisco-based startup Hampton Creek Foods has come up with a groundbreaking alternative: a plant-based egg that is healthier, safer and (they say) just as tasty.
1.8 trillion eggs are laid every year, and 99 percent of them are produced in ways that would make most people want to throw up.
Seeing as eggs constitute an $8 billion market in the U.S. alone, Hampton Creek’s technology has tremendous commercial potential. “I realized the most effective way to change things is through capitalism, because it’s such an aggressive and powerful force,” says Josh Tetrick, who co-founded the biotech company with his best friend, Josh Balk, director of food policy at the Humane Society.
“We want to make it easier for good people to eat in a way that is good for the planet,” he explains. “1.8 trillion eggs are laid every year, and 99 percent of them are produced in ways that would make most people want to throw up.”
In 2011, Tetrick began experimenting in his kitchen with everyday ingredients before quickly enlisting a team of biochemists, including people who had worked with noble laureates on a cure for HIV. His team studied the molecular structures of 1,500 types of plants from 40 different countries and identified 22 varieties with egg-like characteristics, such as the ability to emulsify and congeal.
Three years later, Hampton Creek has three products: Beyond Eggs, an egg-substitute powder sold in bulk to food manufacturers; Just Mayo, a cholesterol-free (and protein-free) mayonnaise-style condiment available for $4.49 at Whole Foods; and Eat the Dough, a chocolate-chip cookie dough that can safely be eaten raw (not yet available for sale).
The recipes don’t vary much from the originals, but Hampton Creek swaps out the eggs for vegetal ingredients like ground-up yellow peas, sorghum and canola oil.
There are already other companies selling egg substitutes, but they’re made mostly of potato starch and tend to be marketed to home bakers. Hampton Creek, on the other hand, offers plant-based products and targets both consumers and large food corporations. The company’s ambitions go far beyond satisfying a few vegan foodies; it wants to make the multibillion-dollar egg industry obsolete.
To keep up with all the demands for the growing global population, we need to be more efficient, more environmentally friendly, and have more quality and affordable choices.
Hampton Creek’s plans may sound like a pipe dream, but Bill Gates sees it differently. So far, Hampton Creek has raised $30 million in funding, and Gates is just one name on its long list of high-profile investors. Others include Li Ka-shing, No. 14 on the list of the world’s wealthiest men, and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang.
Backers are inspired by the company’s mission to provide a sustainable solution to the impending food crisis. In 2000, the global demand for eggs was 14 million tons — a number that’s expected to reach 38 million by 2030.
But what fascinates Silicon Valley investors most is the prospect of revolutionizing an industry that has barely changed in 100 years. “When you show them that 1.8 trillion eggs are laid in such antiquated ways, they are shocked,” explains Tetrick. “As capitalists who care about profits, they say, ‘This is crazy.’”
So Hampton Creek sells itself on economics as much as environmentalism. Nearly 70 percent of egg production costs comes from chicken feed, so if birds are removed from the equation, the profit margins become substantially more enticing.
Not surprisingly, conventional egg producers have gone on the defensive. To discourage consumers from trying “eggless” alternatives, the American Egg Board launched a campaign called “Accept No Substitutes.”
“Consumers want natural ingredients and a clean label,” says Joanne Ivy, the board’s president. “Nothing is much more natural than an egg.”
But folks at Hampton Creek beg to differ. Their headquarters may resemble a science lab, but their products contain no artificial flavors or colors.
And to ensure that their inventions are not only eco-conscious but also taste great, chefs from the world’s top restaurants have been hired to work alongside the biochemists. So far, the products have fooled skeptics in blind tests, including celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, who said, “I preferred the taste of their Just Mayo to Hellmann’s, my ‘must-have’ brand.”
For Tetrick, eggs are just the beginning. “We are like Google’s search engine: The more we catalog, the more we can offer,” he says. Hampton Creek’s scientists have also found a plant variety that could replace sugar, and one that smells like beef.
But before it can take on the meat industry, Hampton Creek has to prove it can move beyond the healthy, wealthy, eco-friendly crowd and capture the mainstream consumer. Tetrick is optimistic. “People don’t buy mayo because they love eggs. They buy it because they love mayo,” he says. By delivering great-tasting, natural alternatives, Tetrick hopes to win them over.
Food industry analyst Roger Roberts, of PA Consulting Group, thinks Tetrick’s bid is well-timed, and that the animal-based food industry is “the 21st century’s biggest dinosaur.”
A crucial test will come in early 2015, when Hampton Creek’s boldest product — an eggless mix for scrambles — hits store shelves. Meanwhile, the startup just signed retail partnerships with six Fortune 500 companies and, with the help of Li Ka-shing, hopes to expand to China, where their plant-based egg substitute could mitigate the risk of avian flu.
For a company with only 55 employees, scaling could be the next challenge. “I don’t want us to spread ourselves too thin,” says Tetrick. But with heavyweight investors and a tasty product that’s also good for the environment, Hampton Creek may have cracked the recipe for abolishing factory farming, one bite at a time.
Why you should care
Because now you can make an omelet without cracking a single egg.