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December 09, 2013

Safe to Eat the Cookie Dough: Meet the Non-Egg Egg Substitute Backed by Bill Gates

The human race wouldn’t have gotten very far without hen’s eggs. Unless you’re vegan or allergic to eggs, chances are good you eat eggs in some form every day. You may like eggs and eat them for breakfast or brunch. Alternatively, you may be eating them in cakes, rolls, mayonnaise, French toast and Monte Cristo sandwiches.

Unfortunately, egg farming is a dirty and energy-intensive process. Eggs are one of the most vectors for food-borne illnesses, and animal rights supporters say egg farming is one of the cruelest agricultural operations in the world, confining chickens to tiny spaces for their entire lives and even amputating their beaks to keep them from injuring other chickens. Beyond green and human approaches, there is the health element as well: eggs are very high in cholesterol, something an ageing U.S population is increasingly becoming aware of.

San Francisco-based Hampton Creek Foods hopes to replace the need for eggs and do away with the pollution inherent with intensive egg farming.  The company, which is backed by venture funding from Bill Gates (among others), employs researchers who seek to develop egg substitutes made from plants that can be used anywhere eggs can be used: in omelets, in baked goods and in dressings. The company is already selling its first product, Just Mayo egg-free mayonnaise, at Whole Foods. Several food companies are already using the company’s egg substitutes in cookies and mayonnaise.

Experts call it the beginning of the “protein economy,” or the big business that is likely to follow the quest for tasty, cost-effective protein that does not come from animals. (Animal farming is polluting, energy-intensive and an inefficient use of land, and likely unsustainable for a world population that will exceed eight billion people by 2025.) We have already seen the beginnings of lab-engineered meat, and this science, still in its infancy, will likely push the protein economy by leaps and bounds once it’s ready for its commercial debut.

According to Bill Gates, who has invested heavily in protein alternatives, it’s about price and quality.

“The fact that innovation will give [us] equivalent [food] without those negative effects at lower prices is an amazing example of how linear projection misses what innovators using science will be able to do,” Gates told venture capitalist Vinod Khosla last year. “It’s completely not part of the mainstream dialogue. Five years from now, as these products get out there, the whole view of what agriculture needs to do … will be a lot more positive.”

So while many of us may not be quite ready for lab-grown meat, a healthy egg substitute seems like a good place to start. And there’s another upside to Hampton Creek’s non-egg substitutes: you can go ahead and eat the cookie dough without hearing your mother’s warning in your head: “Don’t eat that! You’ll get salmonella!”

Edited by Cassandra Tucker

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