Are plant-based eggs the final frontier in faux food?

24 Feb 2020

Following on from plant-based proteins that mimic real meat, vegan egg substitutes have started to gain attention, with pioneering companies claiming that their products are convincing alternatives to the real thing.

Vegans make up a very low proportion of the population, but the number of consumers aiming to eat more plant-based foods and cut back on animal products has continued to rise. From a health perspective, a growing body of research suggests a plant-based dietary pattern could help reduce risk of heart disease, some cancers, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Are plant-based eggs the final frontier in faux food?
Plant-based eggs are becoming increasingly convincing

Dairy aisles now carry a broad selection of alternatives made from soy, coconut, oats and more, as suppliers that traditionally made ingredients for dairy have introduced cultures, probiotics and flavours specifically intended for plant-based alternatives to yoghurts, milks, cheeses and spreads. And meat substitutes have become increasingly meat-like following developments in extrusion technologies, flavours and texture modifiers.

However, while red and processed meats in particular have been linked to disease risk when consumed in excess, eggs have suffered from confused messaging about how they affect health. Nutritionally, eggs are one of the most complete foods available, rich in protein as well as numerous vitamins and minerals – but their relatively high cholesterol level meant that for a long time public health bodies advised people to limit their egg consumption. The latest research suggests that dietary cholesterol does not translate into higher blood cholesterol, but uncertainty prevails. And this gives vegan egg substitutes a further boost.

The health argument is just one side of the equation. The other is a more conscious way of eating, which is the platform on which Silicon Valley start-up JUST launched its vegan egg alternative based on mung beans. It is giving established brands a run for their money, and is now the second biggest selling liquid egg brand in the United States. Now, other companies are eyeing the space, including a Canadian firm, Noblegen, which has started to make a similar product from the microorganism Euglena gracilis combined with pea protein.

From a cost perspective, egg-free scrambles still need all the boost they can get. At retail, JUST Egg costs about three times as much as an equivalent carton of liquid eggs, although the company has said it intends to cut the price by about 35% when a new manufacturing facility starts running in May 2020.

For manufacturers, egg substitutes have long helped mitigate costs in food production, and protect against price fluctuations that exist in the egg market. Such products may not be convincing substitutes for scrambled or fried eggs, but are useful in industrial products, and baked goods in particular. Recent moves in the sector have played up the plant-based aspect, alongside potential cost savings.

For instance, Renmatix recently signed a distribution agreement with The Ingredient House for its egg replacement ingredient, made from plant materials and chemical-free agricultural feedstock, and when UK-based Ulrick & Short introduced a vegan egg replacement ingredient, it cited growing demand for vegan foods as an opportunity for manufacturers to discover new ingredients and textures.

Meanwhile, global food ingredients giant Ingredion led a series B financing round for US-based Clara Foods, a company that makes egg proteins via fermentation. The proteins are identical to those from hens’ eggs, but involve no animal agriculture. Although it remains to be seen whether vegan consumers would accept actual egg protein in their diets, innovation in animal-free egg alternatives looks set to increase, especially as such products become more convincing in their mimicry of real eggs.

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