History is replete with examples of food science industry giving us “better than nature” products for us to eat. I’m sure I could scour Google for a long list or the definitive very first one, but the ones that pop up in my head almost immediately are Crisco and margarine. These wonder foods to replace old fashioned bacon, lard and tallow were going to revolutionize the food world for the better. While it certainly made products with unimaginable shelf lives and reduced the cost of production, it also introduced our society to the incredibly unhealthy world of transfats. Now there is a “better than egg” egg product that is popping up in the news. Should we embrace it with the same fervor we did Crisco and margarine, or learn the lessons from the past and look at it with some caution?
Hampton Creek Foods is the innovative company of scientists and food engineers that is attempting to give us eggless eggs that are better than the real deal. You can read several articles (WSJ, TechCrunch and NYT) on the company and its motives. Hint, although the owner is vegan it’s not all about marketing to a vegan audience. The gist of it is that he wants to replace eggs with a process that is supposedly more sustainable, more humane and that will ultimately produce a better product.
First and foremost is to understand exactly how dysfunctional the egg industry is. I don’t want to spoil your omelet (or cake, or bread or whatever other egg-based product you happen to be eating right now) but like many of the animals in our modern industrial agriculture systems chickens are treated horribly. If you opt for a traditional egg it’s going to be from a chicken that lived its life in shoebox sized crate while being pumped with hormones, antibiotics and whatever engineered feed they could get for the least price. Along with the mountain of eggs it’s also producing a mountain of highly concentrated chicken waste which has to be treated like the toxic waste that it is. If you try to do the right thing you will get “cage free” or “free range” chicken eggs, maybe even organic versions of that. These are certainly better but not exactly what you are picturing. The definition of cage free and free range are rather loose. For example, “free range” just means they have access to outside even though nature says none of the chickens are going to go through the little door that would lead them out. If you are fortunate enough to be able to find a producer that legitimately raises chickens in an old fashioned way then you will know you are going to pay at least double the price for those eggs.
I therefore can see a good point to trying to address the ethics problems of getting eggs by looking at an engineered food product path. Hampton Creek is starting off modest and in a sensible direction. They aren’t trying to make a product for you to pour into your frying pan and treat like a whole egg (although they have a prototype of it). They instead are looking at ways to replace eggs in baked goods and products like mayonnaise. Again, since their end goal is to make cheaper better “egg product” and most of our eggs go into these goods it makes sense to approach the problem like that. They have a line of mayo’s and cookie doughs that apparently even non-vegans find appetizing and in some cases better than the “real deal.” So from a product standpoint, it seems like they are on the right track.
The question then becomes what is going into that product and what are the long term effects of its consumption. Ironically their website and most articles don’t address the actual ingredients. I guess most people don’t care what they are putting into their bodies as long as it tastes good. The TechCrunch article however did manage to publish the list of basic ingredients. When you slather on that layer of chipotle mayo or pop yet another cookie into your mouth you’ll actually be eating some combination of: peas, sunflower lecithin, canola, and natural gums. That list isn’t as long as I was expecting it to be. Eggs are a great combination of protein, fats, vitamins and minerals. I’m guessing that the peas are used in the form of pea protein and the fat obviously from the canola oil. If you just mixed the two together you’ll just get some slop, so if you throw in some emulsifier (the lecithin) and something to add some elasticity (the gum products) and you have something that can be whipped up into a mayo or some other type of product. That’s all my guess work but I think it all makes sense.
So is this a “better egg” than an egg? It certainly doesn’t have any animals being raised inhumanely. That’s a good plus, but it is possible in many areas to get legitimately humanely raised chicken eggs. These products don’t have any cholesterol, which is important for people whose cholesterol is actually affected by food-born cholesterol. Unfortunately in recent years it’s been found that there isn’t as clear a relation between consumed cholesterol, blood cholesterol levels or (most importantly) heart disease. Canola oil isn’t my favorite oil. I try to avoid using it, but it is a key feature to add fat to this product. Since this too is an engineered food product I guess it makes sense to use an engineered oil. While people used to associate canola oil with being a healthy oil, that isn’t as much the case anymore. The omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of this product is probably going to be better than a conventionally raised egg, but if you compared to to an “old fashioned” raised chicken it will probably be on the losing side of the argument. Lastly there is the question of all of the micronutrients. Eggs are loaded with vitamins and minerals, especially if you are looking at “old fashioned” raised eggs rather than conventionally raised eggs. The products included in this list do not have a very broad amount of vitamins and minerals. Without supplementation, which may be happening, you just won’t see as many out of these “better eggs” based products.
Beyond all there there is the question of the way that processing affects the base ingredients as well. As we’ve learned in recent years, the actual industrial process can radically change what is in the products you are buying. These processes generate lots of heat right where the food is. This can create a denaturing effect and can do things like make omega-3 rich foods actually turn into foods high in omega-6’s. It can do things like take a lot of the beneficial nutrients and make them virtually nonexistent in the final food product.
In the end, I hold out some hope that these products can be a good egg substitute. At worst there are going to be unforeseen ramifications to the product that we may not know for many years. At best, this could be a product that turns out to be a legitimately better product than eggs for many products. I’m probably going to pass for the time being, but may revisit the product in a year or so to see how things have been shaping up. Even in an ideal scenario, this is still an engineered product that would not be the cornerstone of a whole foods diet.