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Will Hampton Creek Foods make our food system sustainable?

2014 April 7

Cracking the Egg

People consume unhealthy food (think a McDonald’s Big Mac) because it is cheap and it tastes good. The founder of Hampton Creek Foods, Josh Tetrick, asks what the world would look like if healthier food was always the most affordable while still being delicious. He believes his company can make plant based proteins, with similar properties to animal-based products, at a lower cost. And he makes the meat industry out to be an easy target: wasteful, unsustainable, cruel, and riddled with increasing costs. And he has just been armed with an additional $23 million in investment from Li Ka Shing, whose name you might recognize from our campus’s Biomedical and Health Sciences building bearing his name.

Over 1.8 trillion eggs are consumed per year worldwide, and 99% of them come from caged chickens. Intensive meat production systems like caged chicken eggs are responsible for one third of the world’s energy use. The ratio of energy input to useful food energy (calorie) output is 39:1, Hampton Creek claims. Yet if try to make this process more sustainable by taking the chicken out of the cage, prices rise 30% and Hampton Creek is working off the assumption that the majority of people won’t pay higher prices for cruelty-free products. They think the best way to solve this problem is just to take the animal out of the picture. “It’s not a vegan thing. It’s not a vegetarian thing. It’s just a smart thing,” Tetrick says. He is convinced he has to make any egg substitute cheap and convenient. And he claims he can bring that energy input output ratio down to 2:1 with Hampton Creek’s plant based egg.

The egg has 32 different uses, from your ordinary scramble to cookies and cakes to creamy mayonnaise. Can it be replaced with a plant?  Tetrick throws around verbs like bind, aerate, and emulsify to describe his desired attributes. They’ve looked at 3000 plants and chosen 11, he claims. A specific variety of the Canadian yellow pea seems to hold the secret for making a creamy mayonnaise, their first product which has already hit shelves in Whole Foods, Bi-Rite Market (a notable organic grocery in SF), and -soon- Safeway. They want to be in 25,000 stores by the end of 2014.

“The problem with the conventional egg is that it’s not getting any better.” There are five factors driving demand for Hampton Creek’s egg product: 1) rising and volatile egg ingredient costs, 2) sustainable eating driven by millennials, 3) cholesterol, 4) food safety, 5) and the fact that 34 million people in the US have egg allergies or sensitivities. Their product seems to satisfy all criterion and they claim to be 48% more cost effective than conventional eggs already, $0.39 vs. $0.76 for the equivalent of a dozen eggs. They will be launching cookie dough and scrambled egg products soon.

They are certified as non-GMO (otherwise they wouldn’t be on Bi-Rite shelves). They use only ingredients that are “GRAS”-certified, or generally regarded as safe. So what is the catch? Does all of this sound too perfect? Some of their ingredients are organic and some aren’t. They admit that if they used solely organic ingredients, then their egg product would be 30% more expensive than the conventional egg. Yet, while their might be some drawback with respect to this organic aspect, the product seems to win from energy, carbon, water, health, and cost metrics. Are their pitfalls to these “lab-based” foods that we aren’t seeing? Is it GMO 2.0? Is it still promoting homogenous food production that stifles biodiversity?

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