If Clara Foods had its way, the egg would always come before the chicken. In fact, the chicken needn’t be part of the analogy at all.
This is because the Californian start-up has developed a way to produce lab-cultured egg whites that are ‘nature identical’ to proteins found in animal-derived eggs. “We’re creating a technology platform that leverages precision fermentation to create real egg proteins without the chicken in the equation,” explained Chief Technology Officer Ranjan Patnaik.
Hatching lab-cultured egg proteins
The egg replacement market has risen in recent years, not least due to growing demand for plant-based alternatives that advance environmental sustainability, health, and animal welfare agendas.
According to Future Market Insights, the global egg replacement ingredient market is expected to register a CAGR of 5.8% between 2019 and 2026, with an anticipated value of $1.53bn just five years from now.
Rather than go down the plant-based path – as has previously been done with aquafaba, flaxseeds or chia – to mimic egg whites, Clara Foods is focused on making ‘exactly the same, nature identical’ proteins found in eggs through fermentation.
“Our approach has been to make sure that the taste, texture, and culinary functionality of these proteins matter. At the end of the day, we have to make sure consumers accept the molecules…and ingredients we are making,” Patnaik told delegates at the recent Reformulate: Fermentation-Enabled Alternative Protein Innovation Digital Summit.
But it is not all about functionality. Clara Foods claims its products are significantly more sustainable than their animal-produced counterparts. “A fermentation approach will always be better from a life cycle assessment (LCA) perspective, compared to the incumbent process and incumbent supply chain of accessing eggs through the poultry industry,” we were told.
Precision fermentation in an eggshell
Whereas most consumers perceive eggs to be made up of egg white and yolk, for Clara Foods, the product is much more complex.
“For Clara, egg whites have hundreds of proteins, and so does the yolk – which has many factors and ingredients in it,” explained the CTO. “So from a precision fermentation perspective, we are really opening the egg up at a molecular and individual protein level.”
Clara Foods kickstarts the precision fermentation process by mixing two ingredients: sugar and yeast. From there, it uses ‘advanced yeast engineering and fermentation technologies’ to selectively cultivate the ‘perfect strain’ of yeast. The result is a protein ‘tailored for purpose’. “Whether egg albumen for baking, environmentally friendly antimicrobials, or pure, clean protein, our process can make anything,” according to the company.
Patnaik elaborated: “We put the DNA of the proteins – identical to what you would find in eggs – in microbes and use very traditional bioreactors…as a technology platform to make these individual proteins into ingredients. They can later be combined and leveraged in the way we want.”
Cracking culinary potential?
Clara Foods is working to disrupt the conventional egg market with the development of ingredients for sports nutrition, baking, and other industrial uses. In the culinary space, the company has successfully used its ingredients to make vegan meringues, pancakes, and scrambled egg alternatives.
Further, the business is addressing functionalities from emulsification to foaming and thermal gelation, by mixing and matching proteins and ingredients. The CTO also suggested there is potential for egg proteins to offer new functions.
“Mining the egg opens up some new functionalities that were not possible to access through complete egg whites,” he explained. “Some proteins might be good at foaming and not good at emulsification, but the ability to address them individually, or in combinations – because we have access to individual proteins as ingredients – [enables us] to address all of them. And sometimes, [we discover] new functionalities,” said Patnaik. Some of these novel applications, he continued, work in ways that ‘frankly, real eggs can’t match’.
Clara Foods is developing these applications in partnership with commercial partners. In 2019, the start-up signed a global partnership agreement with Ingredion to jointly develop, market, and distribute its products.
The agreement has allowed Clara Foods to access new markets and ‘continuously work with new bakeries around the world’. It is also through commercial partnerships that Clara Foods is working to make its products as accessible as possible.
“The investors in our company are large commercial partners…At the end of the day, food is all about price points and accessibility. At Clara, we are laser-focused to make sure that our proteins are accessible around the world,” explained the CTO, “and are at price points that can compete [with conventional eggs].”
Ultimately, commercial partnerships will help Clara Foods advance its mission of ‘replacing animal agriculture’, Patnaik added.
Europe ‘definitely’ on the cards
Clara Foods does not perceive regulation to be a major challenge in its home country. The company has completed self-GRAS (generally recognised as safe) assessments of its products, and has filed GRAS applications with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“We are waiting…for our approval response from the regulatory agencies,” the CTO revealed, “but most of the proteins we are working on do have self-GRAS certifications. And because we are making nature identical proteins…it’s exactly the same protein as in egg whites and the organisms we are using are already GRAS-certified…really, we don’t see many regulatory hurdles.”
Currently, the start-up is concentrating on a rollout across North America. However, as egg is ‘ubiquitous around the world’, the company’s intent is to ‘address everywhere eggs are used’ – and ‘especially in places where there is plenty of history of fermentation technology’.
Europe is such a place. Concerning timelines, the CTO predicts Clara Foods will focus on the EU ‘a little later and after North America’, but acknowledged that ‘things do change’ and ‘technological innovation and breakthroughs do happen when you least expect it’.
“Sometimes it does help to scale much faster, but the intent is definitely there to be commercialised in Europe.”