The Incredible "Egg"

Chickens may soon be taking a much-deserved vacation.

andrew zimmern

We are running out of arable land on planet Earth, weather patterns have shifted because of global warming, and farming in our state alone has taken a big wallop from those changes. Food insecurity affects more than 10 percent of Minnesotans, and nationally 20 percent of children go hungry each day. The energy we use to produce food is increasingly more expensive and takes more out of our system than is practical or sustainable. Scary stuff, right? Well, there is some good news: I think I just ate something that will have a greater impact on our lives tomorrow than any food I have eaten in my lifetime. I just ate the world’s first plant-based “egg.”

In the venture capital meccas of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, the new tech frontier is food, and what’s going on out there is revolutionizing what and how we eat. Hampton Creek Foods is generating huge excitement and pulling in millions of investment dollars from the Founders Fund (which helped start Facebook and Napster) and folks like Bill Gates. Hampton Creek is creating the next superfood: Beyond Eggs is the project and the product.

Traditional chicken eggs aren’t very food-safe, have limited shelf life, are delicate, and their modern production methods have a harmful environmental impact. Caged chicken egg production is an emblem for everything farming and food systems shouldn’t be. And yet eggs are a perfect food in many ways, and if you wanted to start somewhere, why not do it with the one ingredient that’s synonymous with the very essence of life? The goal of Beyond Eggs was to perfectly re-create the egg, making it entirely out of plant material.

Enter the entrepreneur. The CEO of Hampton Creek Foods is a young 33-year-old named Josh Tetrick, and he’s one of the smartest and most charismatic men I have ever met. Tetrick returned to the United States after seven years in Africa working on a variety of social wellness campaigns. After work at TOMS Shoes, he launched 33needs, a crowd-funded company connecting social entrepreneurs to investors. He founded Hampton Creek in 2011, hiring a fleet of international biochemists and food scientists and setting them to work in a laboratory and test kitchen in San Francisco. The task was to replicate the chicken egg and all its functionality, flavor appeal included.

First they isolated the egg’s 22 different functions. Remember, eggs gel, they emulsify, they perform cooking miracles in cakes, muffins, and cookies, from making batter rise to helping sauces emulsify. And they’re a superfood. Tetrick’s team spent the past two years testing thousands of plants, isolating a protein here, a vitamin there, some color over yonder, then creating countless batches of chocolate chip cookies, salad dressings, cakes, and omelets to find the exact mixture of compounds that are fully functional and taste right. Their kitchen has $80,000 particle analyzers and toaster ovens sitting side by side. It was impressive to spend a day at Hampton Creek and watch the entire process unfold before my eyes. I watched as beans, lentils, carrots, and other plants had their individual characteristics isolated, turned into powder, and then used for baking or mixed with water to be scrambled.

I tasted chocolate chip cookies and mayonnaise made with Beyond Eggs and the results were better than I could have imagined; in fact, I preferred the taste of their Just Mayo to Hellmann’s, my must-have brand. In a blind test, I found the cookie made with plant-based eggs to be far superior to the exact same recipe made with commercial chicken eggs, a common reaction according to Tetrick’s team of scientists. In recipes, one of the drawbacks of traditional eggs is their tendency to mask other flavors. The plant-based egg mayo was sublime—I could taste all the acids and the oils in balance, and I got all the egg flavor and texture while the other ingredients still shined through. Same with the cookies. The caramelized sugars and chocolate and vanilla flavors in the Beyond Eggs batch were superb, while dimmer in the conventional recipe. I also became the fourth human being on Earth to eat a scrambled plant. It still needed work; texturally and flavor-wise it lacked the perfection of a real egg. I gave it a B minus. By 2014 they should have it perfected, but you don’t have to wait that long to test me on this: Beyond Eggs Just Mayo is in Whole Foods right now.

The United Nations’ food and agriculture folks said that in the year 2000 global demand for eggs was 14 million tons. By 2030, they say it will be 38 million tons. Hampton Creek’s Beyond Eggs are 18 percent cheaper than battery cage eggs. They’re cholesterol free, non-GMO, soy free, gluten free, dairy free, and have no artificial colors. They use less water to make than standard egg production, produce fewer carbon emissions, and their shelf life, ease of use, and portability don’t have boundaries.

Welcome to the future, a world of solutions to global problems brought to you by young entrepreneurs. I don’t know about you, but I’m sleeping easier.