Start-up firm works to make kitchens egg-free zones

By Terence Chea

Hampton Creek Foods chief exec Josh Tetrick with a type of yellow pea used to make mayonnaise without eggs. Photo / AP
Hampton Creek Foods chief exec Josh Tetrick with a type of yellow pea used to make mayonnaise without eggs. Photo / AP

The start-up is housed in a garage-like space in San Francisco's tech-heavy South of Market neighbourhood, but it isn't like most of its neighbours that develop software, websites and mobile-phone apps. Its mission is to find plant replacements for eggs.

Research chefs bake cookies and cakes, whip up batches of flavoured mayonnaise and pan-fry omelettes and French toast all without eggs.

Funded by prominent Silicon Valley investors and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Hampton Creek Foods seeks to disrupt a global egg industry that backers say wastes energy, pollutes the environment, causes disease outbreaks and confines chickens to tiny spaces.

The company, which just started selling its first product Just Mayo mayonnaise at Whole Foods Markets, is part of a new generation of food-tech ventures that aim to change the way we eat.

"There's nothing to indicate that this will be a trend that will end anytime soon," said Anand Sanwal, chief executive of CB Insights, a New York firm that tracks venture capital investment.

"Sustainability and challenges to the food supply are pretty fundamental issues."

Venture capital firms, which invest heavily in early-stage technology companies, poured nearly US$350 million ($422 million) into food-related start-ups last year, compared with less than US$50 million in 2008, according to the firm.

Plant-based alternatives to eggs, poultry and other meat could be good for the environment because it could reduce consumption of meat, which requires large amounts of land, water and crops to produce, backers say.

It could also benefit people's health, especially in heavy meat-eating countries like the US, and reduce outbreaks of diseases such as avian flu, they say.

"The biggest challenge is that people who consume a lot of meat really like meat, and to convince them to try something different may be extremely difficult," said Claire Kremen, faculty co-director of the Berkeley Food Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.

The American Egg Board, which represents US producers, said eggs couldn't be replaced.

"Our customers have said they're not interested in egg substitutes. They want real, natural eggs with their familiar ingredients," Mitch Kanter, executive director of the board-funded Egg Nutrition Centre, said.

The industry has reduced its water use and greenhouse gas emissions, and hens are living longer because of better health and nutrition, he said.

Hampton Creek's quest to replace the ubiquitous chicken egg is also backed by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Khosla Ventures, a venture capital fund started by Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla.

In its food lab, biochemists grind up beans and peer through microscopes to study their molecular structure, looking for plants that can fulfil the culinary functions of eggs. The company has analysed some 1500 types of plants from more than 60 countries.

The research has resulted in 11 "hits", said Josh Tetrick, the company's chief executive.

"Our approach is to use plants that are much more sustainable - less greenhouse gas emissions, less water, no animal involved and a whole lot more affordable - to create a better food system," he said.

The company's first product - the mayonnaise - is sold for roughly the same price as the traditional variety. It soon hopes to start selling cookie dough and a batter that scrambles like eggs when fried in a pan.

While Hampton Creek takes aim at the egg, another Gates-backed company is targeting the chicken.

Beyond Meat sells "chicken-free strips", which have the taste and stringy texture of poultry but are made from plant protein. It's also working on a product that mimics beef.

- AP

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n1 at 31 Aug 2014 19:09:45 Processing Time: 489ms