Flax and chia eggs may be a thing of the past. Hampton Creek Foods‘, a San Francisco-based laboratory, has seventeen scientists working tirelessly to create a flawless egg alternative. Hampton Creek is one of many venture capital-backed startups trying to engineer dietary alternatives that are better for the planet, healthier for people, and save the lives of animals. Who knew that the next step of the clean-food movement would be taking place in labs?
The shift began in 2012, with two of the most esteemed venture capital firms on Sand Hill Road, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Khosla Ventures, backing nearly a dozen startups trying to engineer healthier and cheaper alternatives to eggs, chicken, cheese, salt, and candy. The companies, whose creations are subject to FDA regulation, “are trying to replicate the sensory experience of proteins that we have all eaten,” stated Amol Deshpande, a general partner at Kleiner Perkins. “It’s not just fake meat. The goal is to have a no-compromise solution.”
And they’re not doing a bad job. Last year, at a Khosla Ventures conference, Josh Tetrick, the 32-year-old CEO of Hampton Creek, gave Bill Gates and Tony Blair a blind taste test of a muffin made with real eggs and a muffin made with his egg replacement, Beyond Eggs. Neither could tell the difference. Still, if you’re worried about what exactly makes an egg go “beyond” (as am I), the ingredient list actually isn’t that scary. The mix includes peas, sunflower lecithin, canola, and natural gums extracted from tree sap. However, it is unclear if those are the only ingredients, and the FDA has been known to approve some pretty chemically charged stuff. I’ll still be checking the packaging before I go “beyond” with my egg alternatives, but it’s definitely worth a try!
Another vegan friendly start-up, Beyond Meat, makes soy-based chicken strips based on formulas developed by two professors at the University of Missouri. Unlike previous soy-based substitutes, Beyond Meat is said to come remarkably close to replicating the taste and texture of the original. Last summer, the Los Angeles based company received an undisclosed investment from Kleiner Perkins and Obvious Corp., an investment vehicle started by two of Twitter’s founders, and the meatless strips debuted at Whole Foods Market outlets in Northern California.
Salt, an unfortunate staple of the American diet that has been linked to many chronic diseases, is another target of the foodie scientists. Minneapolis-based Nu-Tek Salt, a Khosla-backed startup founded by two veterans of ConAgra, has created a mixture of sodium chloride and healthier potassium chloride, another naturally occurring mineral. The only problems with this salt substitute is its price (10 times more expensive per pound than pure sodium chloride), and its metallic taste. However, Nu-Tek isn’t too worried; they’re hoping to benefit from the publicly announced salt-reduction efforts by food companies like Unilever, Sara Lee, and Kraft Foods. The startup is keeping mum about possible deals to supply any of those companies, but CEO Tom Manuel does predict $10 million in sales this year.
Another startup, based out of my backyard, Boston, is Unreal, the maker of Unjunked Candy. They’re a line of low-sugar alternatives to the commercial products of Mars, Nestles, and Hershey’s. So far, you can only find Unjunked Candy in Walgreens, CVS Pharmacy, and Target stores. However, Unreal, with funding from Khosla, plans to expand into snacks, soda, and breakfast cereal soon as well.
The venture capitalists find value in these startups because they believe that climate change and the planet’s dwindling natural resources will put more pressure on the food chain. They want to be on ahead of the game when the food industry begins to require sustainable alternatives. However, the biggest obstacle may not be in product development, financial backing, or even mainstream competition. It may be the reluctancy of consumers to change long held mindsets about their diets. John Burns, CEO of Unreal, says consumers will be forced to reconsider what they put into their bodies. “I’m acutely aware right now of the need to move to better and healthier eating, both from a business standpoint and personally,” he says. “This is a macro trend that doesn’t change.”
So what do you guys think about the scientific progress to make healthier, vegan, and cheaper foods? Can a cruelty-free solution for the world’s growing obesity problem really be found in a petri dish? Let us know your thoughts!