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Can Silicon Valley Make Fake Meat and Eggs That Don't Suck?

These food hackers think their new faux animal products will win over even the most devoted carnivores.

| Mon Dec. 2, 2013 5:55 AM EST
Illustration: Ross MacDonald

We stood in an airy San Francisco warehouse, staring at two plastic cups of gleaming mayonnaise. A golden retriever snored lightly in a patch of sunlight on the floor as Josh Tetrick, the 33-year-old founder of Hampton Creek Foods, waited for me to scoop up the fluffy, effulgent goop with a chunk of bread. Tetrick's team of food scientists had tried making mayonnaise without eggs no less than 1,432 times. This formula was the 1,433rd.

"The egg is this unbelievable miracle of nature that has really been perverted by an unsustainable system," Tetrick, a former West Virginia University linebacker and Fulbright Scholar, had explained to me earlier on our tour of the Hampton Creek Foods facility, a well-lit, cavernous space with rows of metal lab tables, bright red couches, and chalkboards.

The goal, Tetrick explains, is to replace all factory-farmed eggs in the US market.

Mod warehouse, hip startup, vegan eggs—it all struck me as a little too precious for the big time. But Tetrick is adamant that his product has a market beyond this rarefied universe. "We're not just about selling and preaching to the converted," he says. "This isn't just going to happen in San Francisco, in a world of vegans. This is going to happen in Birmingham, Alabama. This is going to happen in Missouri, in Philadelphia."

I let the eggless mayo dissolve in my mouth like a fine chocolate truffle. It tasted exactly like the real mayo that I've slathered on sandwiches countless times before. If I hadn't known that it was fake, I never would have guessed.

Over the next five years, Hampton Creek Foods, backed by $3 million from Sun Microsystems cofounder Vinod Khosla's venture capital firm, will first hawk its product to manufacturers of prepared foods like pasta, cookies, and dressings—the processed products that use about a third of all the eggs in the United States. Then it will aim directly for your omelet with an Egg Beaters-like packaged product. The goal, Tetrick explains, is to replace all factory-farmed eggs in the US market—more than 80 billion eggs, valued at $213.7 billion.

Beyond Eggs isn't the only fake-food startup in Silicon Valley. In the last couple of years, venture capitalists, including Bill Gates and the cofounders of Twitter, have been pouring serious cash into ersatz animal products. Their goal is to transform the food system the same way Apple changed how we use phones, or how Google changed the way we find information.

Josh Tetrick
Josh Tetrick Photo by Matthew Reamer

These new products are not the Boca Burgers of the '90s, thinly concealed soy loaves designed to make vegetarians feel less ostracized at a barbecue. Rather, these entrepreneurs are determined to realign plant proteins into tasting and feeling exactly like meat. The goal is not a slightly improved Tofurky—it's a product that could trick even the most discerning of steak eaters.

Sound a little grandiose? Well, yeah—but welcome to Silicon Valley, where you'd be laughed out of your pitch meeting if your startup didn't promise to change the world. And food industry experts think that Tetrick and his ilk might actually have a shot. According to the market research firm Mintel, some 28 percent of Americans are trying to consume fewer meat products. Patty Johnson, a Mintel analyst, believes that this group, many of them following doctors' orders to cut cholesterol, will be game to try meat substitutes that don't require them to change their recipes. "Products that can mimic chicken the best will do well with that group—the reluctant vegetarians," she says. "I think that they have a potential to carve out some share there in the mainstream consumer market."
 

If there's a ted Talk gene, Tetrick has it. A former sustainability associate for Citigroup, investment law adviser for Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and White House intern under President Clinton, he has bright eyes, tanned arms, and wiry hands that constantly pantomime his words. When Tetrick pitches Beyond Eggs, he begins with a story about how most of the United States' eggs are produced by birds pumped full of corn, soy, and antibiotics in giant rows of cages. "Female birds are packed body to body in tiny cages so small they can't flap their wings," he says, enunciating every syllable in a slight twang that hints at his Alabama childhood. "They never see the sunlight. They never touch the soil."

Tetrick is a vegan, but "as a company, we're not about starting a conversation about whether you shouldn't eat animals or you should eat animals," he explains. Regular people should be able to eat what they want without guilt, he says: "Does my mom, when she eats a muffin, really have to subconsciously contribute to that type of unsustainable system? Can my little brother have a cookie? My God, can my dad have a Twinkie?"

To that end, Tetrick's two engineers, six biochemists, and 11 food scientists are on a single-minded quest to hack the egg and its 22 functional properties—foaming, emulsifying, coagulating, and so on. Their workshop is more laboratory than kitchen; among its host of moisture and texture analyzers is a piston that measures the springiness of a muffin.

The team has looked at the molecular weight of nearly a thousand plant proteins.

It all begins, says Megan Clements, Tetrick's former director of "emulsion innovation," with powdered protein isolate, also commonly used in veggie burgers and energy bars. "Our processing isn't any more intensive than chickpea flour that you might buy from your local organic grocery store," Tetrick says.

That's not exactly true. Over the past two years, Tetrick estimates that his team has looked at the molecular weight of nearly a thousand plant proteins. His biochemists will buy pea protein isolate, for example, and run it through gel electrophoresis, a method also used in DNA analysis, to find out whether that protein can mimic the way an egg white foams up. The next step is processing—essentially putting the isolates through a mill with very particular specs for heat, speed, and pressure. He can't tell me too much past that without getting into patented secrets, but he says that the more gentle the processing, the better. "It's branched-chain amino acids, and if we mess with it too much, that protein will unfold," he says. If that happens, the whole experiment collapses, and the scientists can no longer make the substance behave like an egg.

Tetrick's product has already fooled some key testers. Eight months before my tour, at a high-profile Khosla Ventures investment conference, Beyond Eggs staged a blind tasting of its blueberry muffin and a real-egg version. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair reported that he couldn't tell the difference. Neither could Bill Gates—who was so impressed he became an investor in the company. This past March, Gates featured Beyond Eggs, along with a fake-meat company called Beyond Meat (no relation) and salt-substitute maker Nu-Tek Salt, in an online presentation called "The Future of Food." In it, he enthused: "We're just at the beginning of enormous innovation in this space. For a world full of people who would benefit from getting a nutritious, protein-rich diet, this makes me very optimistic."
 

Like Beyond Eggs, Beyond Meat is trying to fully replicate the experience of eating animal products: It currently makes impostor chicken strips and soon plans to move on to artificial ground beef and pork. Backed by Obvious Corp., the investing team launched by Twitter's cofounders, as well as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (one of the first venture capital firms to invest in Amazon and Google), Beyond Meat sees itself as part of the transition to a future in which "meat" can mean hyper-realistic plant substitutes. Beyond Meat's Chicken-Free Strips are sold at Whole Foods and are set to hit conventional supermarkets by early 2014.

"We call it 'transformative agriculture,'" explains Amol Deshpande, a general partner at Kleiner Perkins. Beyond Meat is the first food company Kleiner Perkins has funded, but Deshpande says the firm is expanding: "There are going to be 9 billion people on the planet to feed. We have to think more broadly." Indeed, Beyond Meat calculates that its process is 55 times more efficient than beef farming when it comes to land use, and 18 times more efficient than raising poultry.

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If making impostor eggs for use in mayo and muffins is a challenge, creating fake meat that actually feels and tastes like muscle is a much harder one, as anyone who has eaten a seitan sandwich can attest. Herbert Stone, former president of the Institute of Food Technologists and a member of the first Apollo space mission's food science team, remembers encountering this dilemma around 1963, when the price of beef was skyrocketing and he began helping companies develop soy-based extenders. Since then, Stone says that he has consulted for three or four fake-meat companies and has seen 15 or 20 (he won't say which ones) whose products have failed over the years. Current clients looking to perfect fake meat include several Chinese manufacturers.

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