Sept. 12, 2013 -- Eggs are one of the most versatile foods around. Whip up the yolks with some lemon juice and oil and you get mayonnaise. Mix them with sugar, flour and chocolate chips and you get cookies. Crack them into a pan and you get an omelette.
Hampton Creek, a food technology group based in San Francisco, loves that eggs are multifunctional, but said that getting a hold of those eggs is actually a major problem..
Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek, said that the idea of Old MacDonald waking up at the crack of dawn, going to a happy chicken coop and getting eggs is as far from reality as can be. "You have chickens packed body to body in cages, which is a hotbed for avian flus," he said. "They're gorging on soy and corn, both of which require a lot of land and fertilizer. From an animal welfare, human health, and greenhouse gas perspective, the system is incredibly broken."
Inspired by the issues he saw in the egg harvesting system, Tetrick and his colleagues decided that there had to be a better way. Working with botanists, biochemists and food scientists, Hampton Creek is starting to making egg-heavy products without the actual eggs, instead using plant materials. Just Mayo, the company's first product, has been picked up by a handful of Whole Foods Market stores in southern California.
Hampton Creek looked at more than 20 different properties for each plant they tested, looking to see how well a plant blends with oil or how it coagulates under heat. "An egg has all these functional properties all at once, but when you cook, you don't need them all at once," said Tetrick. If the plant has a set of functions that match well with an egg-based product, then it gets swapped in. For Just Mayo, the company uses a specific strain of green pea in place of the eggs.
Finding vegetarian-friendly substitutes for meat and eggs isn't new. Tofu, tempeh, and seitan have long been available in supermarkets, though kept separate from the meat products they emulate. Tim Brauhn, CEO of Denver Seitan, said that he had been following the buzz behind Hampton Creek well before they released Just Mayo. "There's more and more science behind these new products, and it's exciting that they're getting national press coverage."
But Brauhn also said that Hampton Creek can't get by on product alone and needs to consider how the product is presented. "For our products, we create packaging and a brand identity that's irreverent and ridiculous," he said. "When it comes to taking over a market share, you want a distinctive brand that attracts people because it's presented so differently, even though the actual products might look the same."
This is especially true for Hampton Creek, since Just Mayo is competing directly with more recognized brands, such as Miracle Whip and Hellmann's, and even vying for the same shelf space. The first run of Just Mayo is showing promise though. Tetrick is just coming off of demos at participating Whole Foods Markets, doing blind taste tests. "Fifty-three percent of customers prefer our product in potato salad, on bread, even off the spoon," he said. "We really want to compare ourselves to Hellmann's."
While the taste and the eco-awareness are there in Hampton Creek products, Tetrick knows that his company won't succeed unless it is also able to compete in price. "My dad doesn't care about climate change or food safety," he said. "The only way we'll succeed is not by promoting our sustainability, but by having a product that is both better and more affordable than our competitors."
While Tetrick has some say in the pricing, it will vary from grocery store to grocery store. "Generally, it's about 10 percent less expensive than current mayo options," he said.
A spokesperson for the Northern California region of Whole Foods Markets confirmed with ABC News that starting Sept. 25, some markets will use Just Mayo to make vegan varieties of tuna and chicken salad in their prepared foods section. However, the jars themselves will not hit retail shelves for a couple of months at the earliest. Tetrick said that Just Mayo will be made available online sometime within the next three weeks.
Other Hampton Creek products are in the works, made from different plants than the green pea used for mayonnaise. Morgan Oliviera, the communications director for Hampton Creek, said that people can expect Just Scrambled, a veggie product made to scramble like real eggs. Then there is Eat The Dough, a cookie dough that can be baked or eaten raw without worrying about salmonella.