The egg of the future may not involve a chicken at all. In fact, in the high-tech food lab at Hampton Creek Foods in San Francisco, the chicken-less egg substitute has already been hatched.
Hampton Creek's egg substitute product is called Beyond Eggs. It's made from bits of ground-up peas, sorghum and a few other ingredients, and it's attracting the attention of high-tech investors including Bill Gates.
If you listen to my story on All Things Considered, you'll hear that it's pretty hard to distinguish between cookies made with Beyond Eggs and those made traditionally with real eggs. The company has also developed an eggless mayonnaise and salad dressing using its egg substitute.
And why does this matter? Well, investors like Gates are betting that our planet can't sustain the current rate of growth in animal-based foods for too much longer.
In 2000, the global demand for eggs was about 14 million tons, according to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization. By 2030, that's expected to climb to 38 million tons.
This is part of a broader global trend: As nations become wealthier, people begin to eat more animal products. In fact, the annual per capita consumption of meat has doubled since the 1980s in developing countries, and meat production is projected to double again by 2050, according to this FAO report.
"Raising meat takes a great deal of land and water and has a substantial environmental impact," Gates writes. (Note: The Gates Foundation is a funder of NPR's coverage of global health). "Put simply, there's no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people," Gates concludes.
A big part of the environmental footprint of eggs and meat (as this infographic shows) is the amount of water and land it takes to grow the grain that's fed to animals used in food production. There's also the fossil fuel energy needed to produce and transport the products.
So increasingly, innovators are looking to develop plant-based alternatives. For instance, Beyond Meat is producing a meat-substitute product that's gaining a lot of attention. And there are more companies marketing egg-substitute products, such as Bob's Red Mill and Ener-G Inc.
"Egg replacements are not something new," says food scientist and food industry consultant Kantha Shelke of Corvus Blue.
But she says what is new is the growing global demand for plant-based foods.
"Today, having an egg-replacement or non-egg label [on a packaged food] is very appealing in the food industry," says Shelke.
There are lots of reasons behind the eggless appeal. Fake eggs don't raise the same food-safety concerns (as we reported, a salmonella outbreak linked to eggs sickened 1,600 people in 2010). And some consumers also worry about food allergies and the cholesterol found in eggs.
So, what's Tetrick's next challenge in bringing his plant-based egg one step closer to the real thing? He wants to perfect his version of the scrambled egg. So far, it's been tough to get the texture right, he says: His eggs tend to crumble into little pieces in the mouth.
If you want to see how Hampton Creek's eggs scramble up, take a look at this video.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. If you think that you need to crack open a few eggs to make an omelet, well, there are some young entrepreneurs in San Francisco who are betting that won't be true much longer. A new business backed by venture capital dollars is taking aim at the traditional egg industry with egg-replacement products.
BLOCK: The strategy is to take the chicken completely out of the process and instead, use plants to re-create the taste and feel of eggs. NPR's Allison Aubrey is here to tell and show us more. Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there. So are you guys up for a taste test?
CORNISH: Let's do this.
AUBREY: All right. Well, what I have here are two types of cookies. Both are chocolate chip. One is your typical grocery store brand made traditionally with real eggs, and the other cookie contains an egg substitute called Beyond Eggs. It's actually made from peas and sorghum. And the question is, can you taste the difference?
CORNISH: All right. So we're going to taste these, and we're going to report back on that question.
AUBREY: OK. Well, while you guys deliberate here and taste, let me introduce you to the 33-year-old entrepreneur behind this. His name is Josh Tetrick and several years ago, when he was trying to figure out what to do with his life, he had competing ideas. On one hand, he had sort of do-gooder instincts, but he also had the desire to be a businessman, to make money. So when I caught up with him at his company headquarters in San Francisco, I asked him how these two goals led him to eggs.
JOSH TETRICK: So the egg industry is massive - over $9 billion around the world. And what people don't understand, I think, is as population explodes around the world, if we continue to eat the eggs we are, there's an environmental cost.
AUBREY: Tetrick points to issues such as concentration of manure that can pollute water and...
TETRICK: Leads to lots of greenhouse gas emissions.
AUBREY: Since it takes a lot of energy to grow the food to feed the chickens that lay the eggs. Now, as Tetrick talks, he sounds more like an activist than a business man.
TETRICK: And I think there's a better way to feed the world.
AUBREY: Now much of what Tetrick envisions is still being developed and to his ear, this is the sound of innovation. No, that's not a jumbo jet ready for takeoff. It's a giant mixer. Tetrick is taking us inside his 2400 square foot food laboratory where a molecular biologist he's hired named Joshua Klein (ph) is at the helm.
JOSHUA KLEIN: We were just shaking up some cake batters with new cooking sources
AUBREY: You see, when it comes to reproducing the egg, they're trying to find plants that will do the job, but there's no slam dunk. The egg has so many functions in food. It can make muffins rise. It can emulsify, fluff things up and help ingredients bind together. So Tetrick's team has had to experiment a lot.
TETRICK: We really have to dig deeply into plant-based functionality. So what we do is we bring in hundreds of different types of plants. We look at them under microscopes. We throw them in mayonnaise and put them in cookies. We process them in different ways.
AUBREY: And over time, they've settled on a combination of peas and sorghum and a few other ingredients to make their product. Now, it hasn't been easy. In one of the early Beyond Egg prototypes, Tetrick says when they figured out which combinations of these plants created the right cookie texture, they thought they had a homerun.
TETRICK: It was good when you first took it out of the oven.
AUBREY: The cookies looked good, they tasted good, but Tetrick says there was a problem.
TETRICK: Then the next day, it would harden up and it was drying out really quick and we actually didn't even know what was drying out.
AUBREY: Tetrick says through trial and error, they found a particular species of sorghum that helped the cookie stay moist.
TETRICK: And now ours lasts even longer, in terms of being moist, than an egg-based cookie would.
AUBREY: Now this egg of the future has attracted lots of attention from high tech investors, including none other than Bill Gates. But Tetrick's company, Hampton Creek Foods, is certainly not the only player in this market.
KANTHA SHELKE: Egg replacements are not something new.
AUBREY: That's food scientist Kantha Shelke. She says there have been vegan products, such as eggless mayo, for decades. But she says global demand for plant-based foods is rising fast.
SHELKE: Today, having an egg-replacement or non-egg label is very appealing in the food industry.
AUBREY: She points to issues such as food safety, egg allergies and the cholesterol in eggs. And Kantha says since big food companies aren't jumping in to innovate, it creates opportunities for start-ups like the folks behind these cookies. For Tetrick, the next big goal is to figure out how to replicate the scrambled egg, which he says is a challenge.
TETRICK: An extreme challenge, no doubt about it.
AUBREY: And it turns out that they've got a version that will actually fry up in the pan, but Tetrick says the texture's just a little different. It breaks into little pieces in your mouth.
BLOCK: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey, reporting on Beyond Eggs. My question, Allison, is if they even look like eggs when you...
AUBREY: You know, frying up in the pan, it looks like eggs. I really think it's a texture issue here and a taste issue. And speaking of that, what do you guys think?
BLOCK: I think I'm not tasting egg, I'm tasting cookie. I cannot form an opinion.
CORNISH: I think I'll need two or three more to really adequately get an idea.
AUBREY: Right. Well, you know, first of all, they're tasters. I don't think people can detect big differences here. But for bakers, this is attractive because it's turning out to be cheaper than real eggs and for folks who care about conservation, there's a cleaner environmental footprint here.
BLOCK: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thanks so much.
AUBREY: Thanks to both of you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.