For food startup Hampton Creek, the egg is ground zero.
The San Francisco-based company’s mission is to transform the way we eat by replacing the animal products in our food with ingredients that can be made from plants.
It all began with a product called “Beyond Eggs,” a pea-based egg-replacement that can be used for baking but not eaten alone. Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick, a long-time vegan, portrayed the product as the first of a long line of products that would eventually turn our food system — which he calls “completely broken” — upside down.
“We’re trying to take the animal totally out of the equation,” Tetrick told NPR in 2013.
Tetrick is right that our food system isn’t sustainable — producing a half-pound of beef results in roughly 7 and a half pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, or the equivalent of driving nearly 10 miles. Producing the same amount of potatoes, on the other hand, requires about a tenth of that CO2. Decreasing the amount of meat Americans consume could make a big difference for the planet.
Hampton Creek’s message has resonated with consumers. Six years after the company was founded, it has raised more than $US220 million and currently is valued at $US1.1 billion. Since debuting the pea protein-based “Beyond Eggs” in 2013, the company has released a line-up of plant-based alternatives to foods that rely on animal products, including cookies, dressings, and a popular eggless mayonnaise that’s sold in stores like Wal-Mart and Whole Foods.
In 2015, Hampton Creek was named a “Technology Pioneer” by the World Economic Forum; that same year, its revenues grew 350%. Its products are now served in more than 3,000 K-12 schools and 500 universities as well as in stadiums, corporate cafeterias, and government agencies.
But Hampton Creek still hasn’t cracked the eggless egg — at least not one that can be cooked and eaten on its own.
Peas — in the form of pea protein isolate — are the centrepiece of “Just Mayo”, while the company’s “Just Cookies and “Just Dough” feature sorghum. But neither of those ingredients have yielded a stand-alone egg substitute. Various test versions of an eggless scrambled egg product, which Tetrick said might eventually be called “Just Scramble,” have repeatedly failed to hit the mark. Alice Park, a science writer for TIME, wrote in 2014 that one version of the scramble tasted more like tofu than eggs.
But Hampton Creek has kept at it. Their latest version of the scramble (which is not yet on the market) is made with mung beans; Tetrick and other staff members have taken to simply calling it “Jack” or “the magic bean.”
On a recent tour of the company’s headquarters, we gave it a taste. Ben Roche, one of the company’s heads of product development and a Michelin-starred chef, poured some of the yellowish liquid into a frying pan.
After a few minutes, the scramble began to look, well, like scramble. Along the bottom of the pan, a soft layer of what looked like perfectly-beaten eggs began to solidify, and as Roche stirred, the mixture started to take on a more defined shape. Again, it all looked like typical egg behaviour.
Roche scooped the finished product into a small bowl for me and sprinkled it with a bit of sea salt. The product certainly looked like eggs — it had the texture and the characteristic pastel-yellow colour, and it was steaming like a hot plate of scrambled eggs normally would.
I shoved a forkful of the scramble into my mouth. It didn’t taste like eggs. But it wasn’t bad, either.
Next, Joshua Hyman, Hampton Creek’s head of culinary programs, introduced me to the company’s latest iteration of the eggless egg: patties. These don’t have an official name yet, but Hyman told me envisions them being sold in schools and universities much like their egg replacement product.
Hyman slid what looked like an egg sandwich towards me — the egg patty (which is the same as the scramble, but formed into a patty shape) was inside a toasted bialy smeared with a light dusting of “Just Mayo”.
I tried a small bite of the sandwich — which had preemptively been cut into quarters as though in acknowledgement of my scepticism — and was blown away. The texture was perfect and the taste was distinctly egg. It didn’t seem like it could be the same product, but perhaps all the “Just Scramble” needed was a bit of crispiness and a smidge of creamy pea protein. As we talked, I ate three more pieces. Running out of time, I put the fourth in a bag to take home.
Hyman told me that he envisions the patties being sold as an alternative to the scrambled eggs that normally go in foods like egg sandwiches and breakfast burritos.
In addition to the scramble and patties, the company is testing out a healthier version of their original mayo product and an ice cream and butter made with mung bean as the base ingredient. Tetrick also told me they’re “close” to producing lab-grown meat, something the company first unveiled they were working on in June. The product will be in the avian family, according to Tetrick, but our guess is that it will be chicken.
“Right now if a really great burger was a 10 and a McDonald’s burger was a 6, this is a 4. We’re not there yet,” he said.
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