Eggs play a crucial role in many of our favorite dishes, from perfectly puffed soufflés to silky smooth hollandaise sauce. Their versatility as an ingredient provides essential functionality and flavor to a wide range of food products.
But in recent years, there has been a growing demand for plant-based egg substitutes, driven by health, environmental, and ethical considerations. This presents both challenges and opportunities for food manufacturers.
In this article, we'll explore the prevalence and importance of eggs in the food industry, delve into consumer motivations for alternatives, and examine a range of plant-based egg substitutes suitable for a variety of applications, alongside their advantages and limitations. We'll also touch upon some of the promising developments that could inform future innovations in this area.
Whether you're just starting out as an ingredient company or an established food manufacturer looking to replace eggs in your products, this article will give you a fresh perspective on the fascinating and ever-evolving field of egg alternatives.
In addition to playing a major role in many domestic kitchens, eggs are widely used in the food industry due to their versatility, functional properties, and nutritional benefits.
Eggs are a staple ingredient in many baked goods, such as cakes, bread, and pastries, due to their ability to provide structure, moisture, and richness. Eggs are also used as binders in meat products, helping to combine ingredients together in foods such as sausages, burgers, and meatballs.
Separated whites and yolks also demonstrate unique functional properties. For example, where egg whites contribute to the structure and stability of food products, the yolk is often used to impart flavor and color.
Nutrition is another important quality; eggs contain plenty of high-quality protein, vitamins, and minerals, making them a valuable ingredient for food manufacturers. Moreover, eggs can be purchased fresh, separated, dried, frozen, ready-mixed, and pre-cooked depending on the manufacturer’s or food handler’s requirements.
Consumers are seeking plant-based egg substitutes for a variety of reasons, including animal welfare, health, finance, and convenience.
Alternatives offer a more ethical and sustainable choice for individuals who are concerned about the treatment of animals in industrial agriculture or the impact animal products have on the environment. Additionally, plant-based eggs offer a cholesterol-free and egg-allergen-free replacement for those hoping to improve their health and avoid one of the eight major food allergens.
Salmonella, which is responsible for approximately 1 million cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. each year, and indirect health risks such as antibiotic resistance may also drive consumers towards purchasing egg alternatives.
What’s more, chicken-derived egg prices have soared in recent years, thanks primarily to the rising threat of avian influenza. By the end of 2022, consumer prices for plant-based eggs fell below those for chicken eggs (on a per-unit basis). Therefore, plant-based egg alternatives have the potential to harness the 2023 plant-based trend of budget-friendly flexitarianism and use this opportunity to reach new customers, which brings us to the main drivers for the food industry.
Aside from achieving price parity with conventional eggs, food manufacturers have the chance to crack the code and create products that meet the needs and preferences of an increasingly health-oriented and environmentally-conscious consumer base. Indeed, the nutrition and functionality of plant-based alternatives can even achieve superiority over chicken-derived eggs.
The avian influenza crisis has also impacted far more than consumer behavior; food manufacturers have been significantly affected, including supply chain disruptions, price volatility, and trade restrictions. Many are responding to these challenges by seeking plant-based substitutes for eggs, which offer a secure and reliable route to reduce costs, improve efficiency, and realize sustainability goals.
Additionally, plant-based egg alternatives can help manufacturers to streamline scheduling, production, and warehousing since conventional eggs require strict allergen segregation and cleaning protocols.
Understanding exactly which properties eggs provide in a specific product is the key to successful substitution. This knowledge will help food manufacturers create products that meet the needs and expectations of consumers, while also ensuring that they are nutritious, safe, affordable, and appealing to the taste buds.
Some of the key functionalities of eggs in food manufacturing include:
The coagulation and gelation properties of egg support its role as a binder, whereby ingredients are held together to create structured food products, from tender crumbed cakes to smooth and consistent sausages.
Egg whites contribute to the lightness and softness of bakery products by forming a stabilized protein network that traps air to form an expansive foam.
Eggs are effective emulsifiers; they have compounds that bind to both oil and water, giving them the ability to stabilize ingredients that would otherwise separate. For example, mayonnaise, sauces, and processed meats.
The sulfur-containing amino acids found in egg whites are responsible for that ‘eggy’ flavor desired by many as an essential sensory experience when eating products such as omelets and scrambled eggs. Egg yolks, on the other hand, contribute fats that add to a richer flavor and aroma.
Eggs act as humectants. In other words, they help to retain moisture in food products, keeping them fresh and moist for longer, extending shelf life, and preventing baked goods from going stale.
Eggs can greatly impact the enjoyment of the eating experience by contributing to the mouthfeel of a food product. Examples of different mouthfeels (a term used to describe the physical sensory attributes of food as it is being chewed and consumed) influenced by eggs include smooth, chewy, firm, delicate, velvety, spongy, moist, and thick.
The ability of egg compounds to contribute to such a wide array of mouthfeels is one of the reasons eggs are such a popular ingredient in food manufacturing.
Eggs are a nutritious source of high-quality protein, vitamins, and minerals, making them a popular addition to many food products.
From sunshine yellow custard to beautiful golden cakes, the carotenoids found in egg yolks are a convenient way to enhance the appearance of food. Egg proteins can also contribute to the Maillard reaction, whereby a desirable golden brown color is created on products such as sourdough or even cooked 3D-printed steak.
The growing demand, driven by the aforementioned motives, has led to the development of many new and innovative products, with improved quality and taste compared to early plant-based egg substitutes.
In fact, many of the early signs are there to indicate that egg alternatives will experience the same success as the plant-based milk category, in part due to the drivers being similar in nature. Indications include the uptake of plant-based egg replacers by many food service businesses, as well as the integrative positioning of vegan products so that they are found amongst their animal-derived counterparts in grocery stores.
To demonstrate the depth and breadth of the current plant-based egg substitutes available, we’ve split them into two main categories along with some prominent examples and their applications:
Aquafaba, the liquid in which legumes have been cooked and steeped, is perhaps one of the most prominent examples of a successful plant-based egg replacer. Its high protein, starch, and fiber content make it an optimal choice as a plant-based emulsifier for making mayonnaise and a foam stabilizer for meringues. Many of the vegan baked goods appearing on supermarket shelves use this liquid, including the range of cakes by OGGS.
Other legume concentrates and isolates, such as soy protein isolate and mung bean protein, are also widely used and offer similar functionalities as egg proteins, including gelation, humectancy, binding, and thickening. For example, Eat Just use mung beans to make their egg products, which coagulate and scramble exactly like the real thing.
Coagulated soy proteins, known as tofu, can be used as plant-based egg alternatives in different ways. While crumbled or cut firm tofu can resemble the texture and mouthfeel of scrambled eggs, silken tofu can be blended into a smooth puree and used as a binder and humectant in dishes such as custards or cakes.
Starches already hold prominent positions as essential ingredients in the food industry. Their high water-binding abilities enable them to thicken, bind, and improve the mouthfeel of products. Rice, tapioca, potato, and corn starch are commonly used but require heat activation before imparting their beneficial properties as egg replacers. To add lift to baked goods, baking powder can be used as a chemical leavening agent.
Ground into a meal and mixed with water, these seeds can form a gel-like substance that acts as a binder in baked goods and processed meats. Easy to make in a domestic kitchen, this plant-based egg substitute is popular for home baking and industrial settings.
Thanks to their fiber content, unsweetened applesauce or pureed banana can be used as moisture-rich substitutes for eggs in cakes, muffins, and other baked goods.
There are numerous methods of imparting egg-like flavors to food products. For example, kala namak (black salt) can provide sulfur for an eggy taste. Significant developments have also been made by flavor companies, who can provide vast databases of flavorings alongside their recommended applications.
Popular plant-based emulsifiers, such as sunflower, canola, and soy lecithins, can be used to bind ingredients that don’t usually mix well together. Vegan ice cream, cheese, and baked goods all benefit from the use of these lecithins.
Perhaps less well-known, algal flour can be a great choice for food manufacturers seeking a plant-based alternative to eggs. The flour is high in protein, fiber, starch, and oil, as well as containing emulsifiers, such as phospholipids), which means it can provide a variety of functions, such as humectancy, emulsification, and mouthfeel.
Single ingredients can replace specific functionality but many consumers and manufacturers require a plant-based egg substitute to perform a number of food functions, which is where blended ingredients come in useful. In addition to being used to produce egg-based dishes, such as omelets and quiches, some of these multifunctional blends can operate as stand-alone products.
Some popular plant-based egg alternative ingredient blends include:
A blend of potato starch, tapioca flour, various leavening agents, cellulose gum, and modified cellulose.
A blend of mung bean protein, canola oil, gellan gum, turmeric, beta carotene, soy lecithin, and transglutaminase.
A blend of whole soy flour, gluten, corn syrup, and algin (a carbohydrate found in brown seaweeds).
A blend of pea protein, yeast extract, gums, sodium alginate, kala namak, and beta carotene.
A blend of algal flour, algal protein, cellulose, gellan gum, calcium lactate, carrageenan, yeast extract, and kala namak.
A blend of sunflower oil, chickpea protein, starches, lecithins, yellow pea flour, flavorings, gelling agents, and beta carotene.
The plant-based egg substitute industry is currently undergoing growth as a result of the increasing demand for egg-free products. Several egg alternative options are available, including a vast array of single ingredients that provide specific functionality.
Significant progress has also been made in the development of multifunctional egg replacements, including a handful of stand-alone products that provide almost all of the same functionalities as conventional eggs - OGGS and JustEggs being prominent examples. These products perform well since their high protein content allows for protein denaturation and subsequent coagulation. Further opportunities lie in high-quality proteins that are yet to be explored, such as seaweed protein; manufacturers could also screen for those that also provide additional functionalities, such as gelation, humectancy, and mouthfeel.
Additional potential lies in precision fermentation, whereby microbes act as hosts or “cell factories” that have the ability to make exact replicas of egg proteins. For example, The EVERY Company has made exciting progress in the production of an egg white alternative using this technology. Since eggs contain hundreds of different types of proteins, there are plenty of options for protein and product development through precision fermentation.
Want to learn more?
For support evaluating the latest plant-based egg substitutes and their optimal applications, reach out to us at Bright Green Partners. We’ll help you crack the code to egg-free products that meet the demands of today’s consumers while promoting a greater understanding of the egg alternative industry.