Press coverage of the ‘plant egg’ developed by start-up Hampton Creek Foods has focused on 33-year-old founder Josh Tetrick’s belief that industrialized egg production is cruel and environmentally unsustainable.
It has to be affordable, as well as better and more sustainable
But Tetrick did not set up Hampton Creek Foods “just to sell products to vegans in Northern California”, he told FoodNavigator-USA. “It has to be affordable.”
His mission is simple: Make plant-based egg replacers (the b2b and b2c brand is ‘Beyond Eggs’) so effective that the world’s leading food manufacturers will come to adopt them as standard in everything from salad dressings to cookies, mayo, muffins and pound cakes.
And these firms won’t buy his products unless they are better and cheaper than eggs, distressing though pictures of battery chickens and concerns about feeding the planet in 2050 might be, acknowledges Tetrick, who has a degree in sociology & government from Cornell and a graduate degree in law from the University of Michigan Law School.
“The reason we’ve got agreements from two Fortune 500 companies [to use it] is because it’s better than what’s already out there, and it’s cheaper. Manufacturers were telling us that existing egg replacers for bakery in particular were not up to the mark.”
The reason we’ve already got agreements from two Fortune 500 companies is because our products are better than what’s already out there
And while the PR buzz right now is about forthcoming retail products coming to a Whole Foods store near you such as ‘Just Mayo’ (mayo alternative in a jar), ‘Beyond Eggs for Cookies’ (a powder you can mix with water), ‘Eat the Dough’ (a refrigerated cookie dough) and ‘Just Scrambled’ (like Egg Beaters - minus the egg), Tetrick’s primary goal is targeting industrial users of egg.
“Our product is cheaper than egg, and just as good, if not better at replicating its functionality. It’s 18% cheaper, and as volumes increase, it’s going to get even cheaper than battery eggs.
“Ultimately I want it to be 40-50% cheaper and my customers to be in rural China, Nigeria and Birmingham Alabama as well as New York City and San Francisco.”
We’re not obsessed with eggs, we’re obsessed with coagulation, emulsification, aeration…
So what’s the recipe? And how come Tetrick - who has no background in food science - has managed to come up with something better than food giants from Tate & Lyle to Arla, Kerry, Penford and Glanbia, who have been selling egg replacers for years?
The secret to the firm’s success, says Tetrick - who recruited former Unilever Food Solutions global R&D director Johan Boot to his team early last year - has been the systematic analysis of hundreds of varieties of plants to identify those that can replicate the function of egg in any given application.
The net result is a suite of products that are custom-designed for specific applications, addsTetrick, who has assembled a crack team of food scientists, chemists, molecular biophysicists, biochemists and Chris Jones, the former Chef de Cuisine at Homaru Canto’s Moto restaurant in Chicago, to create the ultimate egg replacer.
“We have a laser-like focus on functionality. We’re not obsessed with eggs, we’re obsessed with coagulation, emulsification or aeration.”
We weren’t blindly walking through the forest to see what works
So some products will have just one ingredient - notably an undisclosed ‘bean’ native to Asia that coagulates with heat and 'scrambles' just like an egg, while others may have a combination of plant proteins, starches and gums, he says.
And while what he’s doing is very much a science experiment, the ingredients label of his products won’t look like one, he stresses.
“The ingredients will be recognizable, peas, beans, sorghum and some others. We’ve been exploring more than 1,500 ingredients, and found 11 that are really powerful, but they are sub-species of sub-species that when processed in a particular way have the functionality we want.
“Take green peas. There are so many varieties and each has a radically different impact on the end product, but we’ve identified one type that is unbelievably functional and a species of sorghum that works in a very particular way.
"We've mostly had to develop new supply chains to source [some of our ingredients]. And develop novel manufacturing techniques to process them , mostly around heat and pressure."
The R&D approach has been systematic, he added: “We weren’t blindly walking through the forest to see what works. We looked at the molecular weight of these different plant proteins and processed them using heat and pressure to get the functionality we wanted.”
It’s not that eggs are bad, but the industrial scale production of them is the problem
Tetrick, who gave Bill Gates and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair a blind taste test of muffins made with real eggs vs his Beyond Eggs ingredient (neither could tell the difference) at a Khosla Ventures conference for investors last year, says convincing investors to give him a chance was not as tough as he feared it might be.
“It’s not that eggs are bad, but the industrial scale production of them is the problem. I would encourage people to buy free range eggs. But they are significantly expensive, and if we want to feed 9.3bn people by 2050, switching to free range eggs is not the answer to the problem.”
And investors - as well as big industrial buyers of egg - get this, he says, because anyone that has done the math can see that the economics of animal protein production are only going to get more challenging, and plant-based proteins that can deliver are where the smart money is.
Nevertheless, walking out of a meeting with Vinod Khosla (the founder of Sun Microsystems) with $500,000 to pump into his start-up was still pretty thrilling, says Tetrick: “I still have to pinch myself sometimes.”