Perhaps one day soon, when you order a breakfast sandwich or a scramble at some specialty grocery stores, you’ll bite into a yellow, fluffy food that tastes just like an egg, but did not, in fact, come from an animal. Instead, what you’ll be eating is a mung bean, a legume that people have been eating for thousands of years that, when ground into a liquid, happens to scramble and gel just like an egg.
Mung beans are the key ingredient in Just Egg, the latest product from Just, Inc.–the company formerly known as Hampton Creek, which manufactures plant-based alternatives to products like mayonnaise, cookie dough, and salad dressing. Just Egg, a liquid that scrambles in a way that’s eerily similar to an egg when cooked in a pan, is derived from mung bean protein, and colored with turmeric to mimic the light yellow of an egg. It’s slowly rolling out in stores and restaurants across the U.S., including groceries like New Seasons Market, a chain throughout Portland, Seattle, and Northern California.
The egg is the cheapest and most abundant form of animal protein on the planet, and to Just, that signaled a problem. “Food, against all of these different categories, has been formulated on the back of intensive animal agriculture,” says Just CEO Josh Tetrick. Just’s whole mission is to prove that large-scale animal agriculture–which is both inhumane and environmentally damaging–is not necessary to produce foods that have become commonplace in our diets.
While companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are tackling the same issue by developing plant-based alternatives to meat products, Just is focused mainly on ending our dependency on farmed eggs. Each year, the egg industry distributes around 68 million tons of product, generated mainly through battery-cage farms. Packing thousands of hens into close quarters results in a large and cheap supply, but also a host of environmental concerns, from methane emissions to soil and waterway pollution. On top of that, an enormous amount of soy, corn, and water goes toward feeding the chickens that lay the eggs.
Though Just was able to find plant ingredients to replace the eggs in products like ranch dressing and mayo (yellow peas work well at creating a creamy texture), finding a viable alternative to plain liquid eggs proved tough. “Far and away, the egg has been the hardest thing,” Tetrick says. It was a process of trial and error. “We tried scrambling the yellow split pea, which kind of just evaporated in the pan, we tried grains like sorghum, which tasted like eating wheat bread, and we tried another grain that gelled in the pan nicely, but tasted like tree bark,” Tetrick says. When he initially launched Hampton Creek in 2011, he thought he could introduce a scrambled egg alternative by 2013. The fact that it’s just now hitting the market now was due to the difficulty in formulating the product and finding manufacturing partners to create it. Alongside these difficulties, the company also was dealing with a number of business hiccups, including a lawsuit from the mayonnaise industry, a scandal that led to the departure of the company’s entire board of directors last year, a total rebrand for the company, and the decision to radically rein in the scope of the company’s goals from 43 anticipated new products, to just a handful.
But the delay, Tetrick says, has provided ample time for consumer demand to escalate–and has allowed both the market and the culture to catch up with the company’s mission. While plant-based foods were fairly niche just a few years ago, they’re now ubiquitous, with alternatives like almond milk and plant-based burgers landing firmly in the mainstream.
Just Egg, while just introduced to the market in mid-July, is quickly being adopted. The national chain Veggie Grill features the product on its menu, and the bottles of the liquid “egg” will be sold in Sprouts Farmers Market and Wegmans stores around the country (among others), and on Jet.com. On the Just site, consumers can request locations for the product to be sold, and the top 10 include Walmart, Starbucks, and McDonald’s. And before going to market, Just signed an agreement with Eurovo, the largest egg distributor in Europe, which before the end of the year, will produce and distribute the Just Egg liquid product, alongside its standard egg products. The partnership, Tetrick says, is emblematic of how Just intends to scale up the presence of plant-based alternatives in the market.
For now, though, there’s still a price premium attached to these alternatives. Even though mung beans are plentiful, the cost to manufacture and distribute Just Egg is still relatively high–around six times higher than battery-cage eggs, which retail for just over $2 a dozen. “We have to send the beans from Asia to North America, and that’s a significant cost, as is milling and spinning the bean into a protein,” Tetrick says. “If we can get the sourcing and distribution costs down, and the cost of production down, we think we rival the cost of battery cage eggs in the next few years.” And if Just can do that, Tetrick thinks they’ll have a viable case for ending wide-scale dependence on unsustainably produced eggs.