Entrepreneur Josh Tetrick founded Hampton Creek Foods last year to replace one of the most chemically complex ingredients in cuisine: the egg. According to the American Egg Board, eggs can serve 20 different functions in food, including aeration, binding, and thickening. Tetrick brought in food biochemist Johan Boot; their first product, a yellowish powder called Beyond Eggs, should be used in commercial cookies and muffins by the end of the year.
PopSci: What's wrong with eggs?
Josh Tetrick: Our food system is so goofed up—its negative impact on the environment and on our health and its treatment of animals. Our product is about taking something out of the food supply that's not needed and replacing it with something better.
PS: How do you make a fake egg?
Johan Boot: Replace it with plant-based alternatives. An egg is a very complicated production. So this takes a lot of digging, stepping out of the standard scientific journals, looking for unusual candidates. And then looking at combinations and seeing which takes you in the right direction. And then breaking down to their components.
PS: So what's the winning recipe?
JB: You understand I can't give you the exact formulation, but we use proteins from the full range of legumes and grains. Besides that, we need starches or gums. If we need extra moisture or spring, we may need some extra fats.
PS: How's your progress so far?
JT: Initially, when we cut open our muffins, I would press my index finger into it, and it wouldn't spring back. Then, I remember the first time—I was communicating with Johan via Skype—I pressed my index finger into it, and it sprang back. We celebrate when we see the springiness of a muffin. That's time to party.
PS: Okay, you've got springiness, but how do they taste?
JB: We have some chocolate chip cookie and muffin recipes that are a 100 percent match. We want it to be somewhere between 95 and 100 percent for all of them. Some people prefer the egg-replacement cookie to the egg one.
JT: We work on a one-to-five scale. For us, a real egg is a four.
I already prefer many vegan baked goods to the "real thing." Whole Foods' vegan chocolate chip cookies are way better than those made with eggs. The same goes for vegan brownies I've tried. Perhaps it's because I prefer chewy to cake-like. My girlfriend makes fantastic vegan muffins. Also great are vegan cupcakes, pancakes, and donuts! (Though I guess those latter two aren't baked!)
"Goofed up" is an understatement for the egg industry. Millions of hens die every year from tissue pecking, osteoporosis, egg peritonitis (yolk leaking into body cavities), or starvation from getting stuck in cages. Two hundred million male chicks are discarded every year because their breed can't produce meat economically. The "Animal Welfare Approved" label--or knowing your farmer--can ensure good treatment for the hens. But even most small farms use separate breeds for layers and broilers. If, like me, you don't consider animals to be disposable, avoid eggs altogether.