In the pastry world, the egg is royalty. From the moist, chewy goodness of a cookie to the shiny, golden-brown finish of a croissant, the egg can do it all.
Few people know this as well as Janelle Myers. A scientist and French-trained pastry chef, Janelle is immersed in the art and science of cuisine, where the egg is ubiquitous and the perfect meringue is a rite of passage. As a Product Developer at Shiru, Janelle uses her culinary insights to hone in on delicious ingredients that delight food manufacturers and their customers — without the chicken or the egg.
“An egg may have a dozen different functions in a single recipe,” says Janelle, “from gelation and binding to flavor and color. It might be the most versatile food in the world.”
Indeed, eggs are big business. The global egg market is about $250 billion annually, and the world consumes almost 3 million eggs every minute. The average American will consume nearly 300 eggs this year.
Yet each kilogram of eggs we consume creates almost 5 kilograms of greenhouse gases, mostly from feed production, farm energy use, nitrous oxide gas from poultry waste, and transport fuel. Along with their global popularity, this gives eggs a more dubious distinction: they have one of food’s biggest environmental footprints.
So finding alternatives to the egg is a priority for sustainability-minded food makers and eaters. In selecting the right ingredients to replace eggs, the question becomes: How do we choose ingredients that satisfy both food eaters and food makers?
What tasters want
“Defining what people want is a really essential first step,” says Janelle. “As an ingredients company, Shiru has an interesting perspective because we’re talking to food makers and also thinking about consumers as well.”
Janelle recently attended IFT FIRST, a prominent food industry event, where many companies are tackling the challenge of getting the texture of plant-based foods just right. For example, can we create plant-based burgers with the same firmness as their animal-based counterparts?
“Think about your first bite of a burger,” she says. “That resistance is called firmness, and it goes hand-in-hand with chewiness. But each of these properties can be really difficult to create on its own, and the interplay between the two can be quite subjective from person to person.”
Plant-based cheese presents a similar challenge. “It can be very difficult to get cheese that both slices and melts,” Janelle says. “It’s great to get one or the other, but it’s hard to get them together. And it’s even more complicated than that because texture affects how you experience the flavor, both physiologically and psychologically.”
This complexity is one reason why, until now, the industry’s trial-and-error approach to choosing new plant-based ingredients has moved slowly and seemed to solve only one problem at a time. It’s also why quantifying the performance gap is crucial to the ingredient selection process.
“We have to translate ‘liking’ into measurable analytical differences and figure out exactly what we need to solve for,” as Janelle puts it. That is a critical part of the plant-based toolkit to bring better ingredients and products to market at speed.
What food makers want
Satisfying tasters is one thing. But delicious ingredients must also fit a food maker’s manufacturing and supply chain requirements as well.
“For example,” Janelle says, “an ingredient needs to fit into the food manufacturing process. Maybe it has to be in flake form, or stored at a specific temperature. You have to ask what kind of boxes we need to fit into in terms of the food maker’s specific needs.”
And when food makers get into actual formulation — how new ingredients are incorporated into their product recipes — Janelle says everything becomes a trade-off. “You’re thinking about consumer experience, cost, manufacturability, supply chain — all of those things go together.”
In addition, some food makers set ground rules for what kind of ingredients they use or don’t use, such as no artificial flavors or preservatives. Other food makers decide which stores they want to be in and work backward from there (e.g., Whole Foods bans 200+ ingredients from its product shelves).
All of these variables factor into choosing the right ingredient. Only after quantifying what consumers and manufacturers are looking for can we then translate those needs and desires into clear functional requirements for our computational team to work from. Then the magic happens.
Flourishing with a little help from technology
“The relationship between our food science team and our machine learning experts is part of our special sauce,” says Janelle. “It promises to take what is special about the egg and create new possibilities for the entire plant-based food industry.”
With its discovery-based approach to ingredient selection, Shiru can find many potential ingredients that not only delight tasters but also offer the right characteristics for a food maker’s specific manufacturing needs.
We do this with Flourish™, our technology platform for interrogating nearly 450 million proteins found in nature to identify ingredients that will solve specific functional ingredient challenges. Flourish uses machine learning, genetic engineering, high-throughput analysis, and precision engineering to discover better and more sustainable ingredients from nature.
But the first step in the Flourish process is a very human one: choosing ingredient qualities that people love.
The journey to “deliciously sustainable”
With new and better ingredients from nature, Janelle is excited about overcoming the flavor gap in today’s plant-based foods. She’s also optimistic that we’ll soon be able to dial in proteins to achieve the perfect egg replacement.
That’s a tall order for a pastry chef. How do you choose an ingredient that works in everything from angel food cake and meatballs to noodles and omelets? But it’s exactly that challenge that excites Janelle.
“I love identifying customer desires, and translating those desires into clear functional requirements for our [computational] dry lab team to work from,” she says. “The relationship between our food science team and our machine learning experts is exciting and unique, and it promises to take what is special about the egg and create new possibilities for the entire plant-based food industry.”
This is the first in a series about the Flourish platform. Stay tuned to learn how we go from choosing ingredient functions to finding protein solutions in nature using computation and AI.