When I first heard about the egg substitute Beyond Eggs, I was skeptical. Without thinking too much about it, I tweeted “Are plant-based eggs and fake meat truly
#sustainablefood?”, referring to an ongoing debate around whether whole foods are more sustainable than food that’s created in a lab. I quickly received a reply from Josh Tetrick, Hampton Creek’s CEO and founder, inviting me to come visit the Beyond Eggs factory and see for myself.
Fast forward to last week. I arrived at the corner of Harrison Street and 10th in San Francisco’s SOMA district, walking by the bright orange door with an egg on it twice before realizing I was at the right place. Tetrick ushered me into a bustling laboratory, kitchen and office space. In addition to the orange couches and golden retriever, a picture of Bill Gates biting into a cupcake made with Beyond Eggs dominated the entryway. Tetrick was quick to point out that Gates said the cupcake was indistinguishable from one made with regular eggs.
Pop music played in the background as Tetrick walked through a presentation on Hampton Creek and the plant based egg replacements, chatted about his history and motivation to work on the egg problem, and introduced me to members of his team.
Ninety-nine percent of the eggs that we eat in the United States come from industrial producers. Male chicks are usually killed once they are sexed, while hens live out their lives in small cages where they barely have room to move and never go outdoors. These production centers also produce millions of tons of waste per year. Thirty-three percent of industrially produced eggs are turned into ingredients at big food companies. Whole eggs can be sold on supermarket shelves for less than $0.20 per egg, while free range and organic counterparts often cost about $0.50 per egg.
Tetrick and Hampton Creek believe that by developing a plant-based replacement that’s less expensive than even industrially produced eggs, they’ll be able to convince both large food manufacturers like Kraft and General Mills and individual consumers to switch to Beyond Eggs. That’s easier said than done of course — eggs have special properties in baking and other products like mayonnaise that make them hard to replace, not to mention that many Americans consider scrambled, fried, or soft boiled eggs an essential part of breakfast.
The team at Hampton Creek is working hard to crack this code, and they’re taking an interesting approach. Though the long-term goal is to recreate the egg from the shell in, they’re starting out by deconstructing the ways that eggs act in recipes for things like cookies and mayonnaise, and trying to rebuild the chemistry using proteins found in plants. The 17-member R&D team, consisting of chefs, scientists, and bakers, has studied more than 217 kind of plant proteins (from soy to spinach to carrots), and made 344 prototype egg replacements.
The chef has made more than 250 batches of mayonnaise alone. While most of them have separated, collapsed, or otherwise been “off” in terms of texture or taste, the sample I was given was indistinguishable from Hellman’s (the gold standard in both his opinion and mine). Hampton Creek’s blind taste test panelists agree. The next step is to make that product shelf stable, and offer it to both consumers and food companies.
Baking experts and scientists have also been working on shelf stable cookies made with plant based egg replacement—they should be available on Hampton Creek’s website soon, and in your local supermarket in the next year or so.
My visit to Hampton Creek forced me to lay aside my skepticism about laboratory-produced foods and really think about what sustainable food means. Personally, I’m a big proponent of buying local, organic, humanely produced, seasonal produce, meat, and eggs because that approach sustains local economies, decreases my environmental footprint, and ultimately just tastes better. But I’m not naïve enough to think all Americans (not even myself) are going to transform their diets and stop eating industrially produced eggs (or products with such eggs in them) because the Humane Society of America tells them to. They need an option that is less expensive, tastes just as good (or better), and doesn’t harm animals or negatively impact the environment. So in answer to my original tweet: yes, Hampton Creek’s Beyond Eggs is truly sustainable.