That’s why people are urgently looking for alternatives that allow them to enjoy their food with a clear conscience — real solutions like Bettr Egg.
It looks like an egg. It tastes like an egg. But this is not an egg. Not only can Bettr Eggs be used as a primary ingredient in vegan cakes, quiches and other egg-based dishes, but you can also use them to make hard- or soft-boiled eggs, fry them or scramble them – whatever you prefer. This development from Fraunhofer has almost no competition: so far, the only products to come on the domestic market have been vegan egg powders, which are very different from chicken eggs in terms of taste. A vegan hard-boiled egg was recently launched in Switzerland, but a liquid vegan egg with a yolk, white and shell is a completely new phenomenon in Europe.
“The egg yolk is made of plant proteins from peas and/or fava beans, sweet potatoes, high-quality omega-3 fatty acids and calcium,” Verónica García-Arteaga reveals. On her social media profile, García-Arteaga, a native of Mexico who studied nutritional sciences in Munich, promises that “Egg-citing things are coming.”
At the suggestion of an industry partner, she started developing vegan egg whites and egg yolks at the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV in Freising.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? This age-old question has become outdated. Now, you can rule out the chicken altogether and just have the egg.
In May 2021, the VEgg GmgH start-up was launched, with García-Arteaga as the co-founder and CTO. Dr. Patrick Deufel joined the company as co-founder and CEO in November 2021. The young entrepreneurs have set up their office in Berlin, and are working hard to bring a healthy egg alternative to the market, without animal farming. In their Bettr Egg, ions and algae-based hydrocolloids interact in a complex way to form a spherical yellow yolk, complete with a vitelline membrane. This approach is already being used in molecular gastronomy, such as in bubble tea. The egg white mainly consists of proteins and hydrocolloids – polysaccharides that easily cross-link to form a gel. These can even cause the transparent egg white to turn white and solidify when cooked, just like a chicken egg. The egg flavor is created using kala namak, a black salt with a high sulfur content. “We keep the list of ingredients as simple as possible for both the egg whites and yolks: plant-based ingredients with no preservatives, no artificial flavorings and no artificial colorings,” García-Arteaga says. The vegan egg scores some further points for consumer health – it doesn’t contain any cholesterol or allergens, and is also gluten-free.
According to an Estonian proverb, the wise look at the core, fools look at the shell. But at Easter in particular, the shell is important – even if it’s essentially just superfluous packaging material. So that consumers can get the full “experience” of having a boiled egg at breakfast or even cracking eggs when baking a cake, the researchers at Fraunhofer IVV have also developed a suitable eggshell. “Our goal was a biodegradable eggshell that can be thrown into the compost, can be produced on an industrial scale and is just as brittle as a real eggshell – and can be cracked open with a spoon,” explains Dr. Siegfried Fürtauer, who collaborated on developing the shell at Fraunhofer IVV and now heads the packaging development department at VEgg GmbH. But all that isn’t enough – the shell also needs to protect the egg. “While a natural eggshell must be porous in order to ensure the growing chick gets enough air, the egg as a food product needs to be protected from air and germs and from drying out. So we replicated the shape of the natural eggshell, but not the material itself,” says Dr. Fürtauer.
To achieve this ambitious goal, they put a biodegradable thermoplastic through an injection molding process. The thermoplastic itself is not derived from petroleum – instead, it is obtained from special bacteria using a fermentation process. “We’ve developed a completely new generation of bioplastics for the eggshell,” Dr. Fürtauer explains. The research team has mixed calcium carbonate into the bioplastic to make the egg crackable. The material development stage is largely complete, and eggshells are already in production on a pilot scale.
There are still a few challenges to be overcome before the egg can go into industrial production. There are two main options. The first is to produce the complete eggshell, but leave a small filling hole so that the white and yolk can be injected in liquid form. They must not be mixed at this initial stage – unless they are being shaken or stirred – because they have different viscosities. However, the yolk sphere doesn’t form on its own. This is the difficult part – in order for it to form, the diameter of the hole, the geometry of the eggshell, the nozzle, and the filling time and pressure all need to be exactly right. The yolk sphere is stabilized by the complex interaction between the ingredients of the egg white and yolk, and the distinctive vitelline membrane forms. García-Arteaga and Dr. Fürtauer are confident that the machine suppliers they have found so far will be able to make this approach work.
The second option involves placing the pre-encapsulated round egg yolk in an open eggshell, which is sealed with the other half of the shell, i.e. the lid of the packaging. The egg white is then poured in through the filling hole. While the first method can only be carried out using suitable industrial equipment, the second method has already been proven to work in the lab. However, this method now needs to be scaled up to the industrial level.
The team aims to reach this stage by the end of 2023, when the vegan egg, complete with its “eggshell packaging,” should be hitting the supermarket shelves. But in the meantime, the founders at VEgg GmbH are hatching another plan – in the interim, they’re going to fill bags and containers with liquid scrambled eggs, where the egg whites and yolks are already mixed, and market them to buyers such as bakeries, restaurants and other B2B customers. The retail sector will be able to sell the vegan scrambled egg, or even the individual components of the egg yolk and white, in jars, tetrapaks, bottles or yogurt pots. In addition to the technical feasibility of filling this packaging, and its user-friendliness, its sustainability will also be very important. García-Arteaga and Dr. Fürtauer hope these scrambled egg variants could be on the market as early as 2022. Vegans are by no means the only target group that the VEgg team has in mind. “An egg substitute that tastes like an egg and looks like an egg is sure to be widely accepted – as opposed to tofu, for example, which is used as a meat substitute but bears no resemblance to the animal product,” says Dr. Fürtauer. This is good news for people who want to cut down their egg consumption, but are not prepared to make any major compromises when it comes to taste.
On its own, the Bettr Egg is no magic bullet for the future of nutrition. There’s more to it than that. “When it comes to the issue of food, we don’t just look at individual, standalone developments,” says Prof. Andrea Büttner, Director of Fraunhofer IVV. Instead, she looks at the big picture. “We need to see a change in industry and a change in consumers – otherwise we’ll keep running into huge problems.” Many vegans decide not to consume any animal products out of concern for animal welfare. However, as problems with our climate and resources loom, it’s inevitable that the need to switch from animal products to plant-based foods will increase. Raw materials are also running out. German companies are already complaining of major supply issues for raw materials for food manufacturing and packaging – and the situation may worsen in the future. “In Germany, we cannot maintain the supply for our population on our own without overcoming major challenges,” Prof. Büttner believes.
However, new alternatives also create new challenges. Take oat drinks, for example. Where can we get the required quantity of oats from? How do we avoid monoculture? What do we do if the oat crop fails in a region, e.g. due to flooding? Cows produce milk all year round, but oats can only be harvested at certain times – what’s the best way to store them? “We need to rethink entire logistics chains and processing systems,” Prof. Büttner insists. This is why Fraunhofer not only works on individual projects and products, but acts as a systems provider to help develop regional supply chains as well as new economic systems and business models. Or, as Prof. Büttner puts it, “There’s more to it than just developing eggs or individual products – Fraunhofer has whole project maps that fit together like a puzzle.”
Cheese is another important item on the menu. The need for new food products doesn’t stop at eggs – it extends to cheeses, too. You can already find a whole range of vegan milk substitutes in supermarkets and health food stores. However, when it comes to plant-based cheese, the current selection is extremely limited. What’s more, with the exception of cream cheese, vegan cheese is usually not fermented. Instead, it’s made of a mixture of fat and starch than contains hardly any protein and doesn’t have much nutritional value. In many cases, these cheeses contain the controversial ingredient palm oil, as well as additives that have to be declared and flavorings to give them a “cheesy” taste. Consumers tend to be wary of these kinds of ingredients.
Researchers at Fraunhofer IVV are taking a different approach in the Kerbse project – they’re developing a semi-hard cheese, which is produced from pea protein using a fermentation process, just like cheese from cow’s milk. The advantages here are that peas have a high protein content of 20 to 25 percent, can be grown locally, are easily obtainable and are not genetically modified like soybeans – which has a positive effect on consumer acceptance. “We produce plant-based milk from pea protein, rapeseed oil and a sugar source,” explains Dr. Andrea Hickisch, group manager at Fraunhofer IVV. “This is inoculated with lactic acid bacteria before being fermented, pressed, salted and matured.” Although the individual steps of this process have been around for hundreds of years, a lot of work needed to be done to adapt them for this purpose.
The researchers had to find suitable bacteria, remove any bitterness and the taste of the peas and introduce cheesy flavors. It was also important to find the right conditions for the pressing, salting and maturing processes – on the one hand, they couldn’t let the cheese go moldy, but at the same time, it needs to mature for the flavor to come through. The researchers are already on the right track in all these areas. The prototype cheese is already very appealing, in terms of texture as well as sensory perception and flavor. However, it may take another one to two years before this vegan cheese comes on the market.
Then there’s fish. Oceans are highly polluted with microplastics and heavy metals, which end up on our plates when we eat fish. In addition, 90 percent of all fish stocks are considered to be fully exploited or overfished. On the other hand, as the world’s population continues to grow, more and more people are relying on fish as a source of protein. These problems could be solved by cultivating fish directly from cells instead of taking them from the sea. Bluu Seafood, a spin-off of the Fraunhofer Research and Development Center for Marine and Cellular Biotechnology EMB has the right technology. “We produce fish from real fish cells, which we grow on scaffolds in the bioreactor,” explains Dr. Sebastian Rakers, founder and Managing Director of Bluu Seafood. This means that no fish need to die for our food supply. Moreover, the fish product is not genetically engineered and is free from antibiotics and environmental toxins. The team have developed their own growth media, so they also don’t need to use the fetal bovine serum that gave the practice of cell-based meat and fish farming something of a bad name initially. To begin with, hybrid products such as fish balls, fish sticks and fish tartare will be produced from cell components and plant proteins and sold to restaurants; they will make their way to supermarkets later. In the long term, the team aims to include fish fillets in their range. In carrying out its research, Bluu Seafood is continuing to collaborate closely with Fraunhofer EMB, which is affiliated with the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Individualized and Cell-Based Medical Engineering IMTE in Lübeck.
Aquaculture and mariculture can also be sustainable forms of fish farming. But of course, diseases must not be allowed to develop in the water and the fish. As part of the EU Rasopta project, researchers at Fraunhofer IVV are therefore working on feeding techniques, suitable sensors and filter systems to detect diseases early and take steps to prevent them. These technological developments help to avoid off-flavors such as a musty taste. The researchers at Fraunhofer EMB are working on improving the sustainability of fish products. In many cases, just the fillet is sold, rather than the whole fish. A lot of good fish is left behind in the process, and ends up in the garbage. The research team takes these leftovers and processes them into healthy high-protein chip snacks that you can munch on from the comfort of your couch, just like potato chips. These chips are much healthier than conventional kinds – they contain high-quality omega-3 fatty acids, for example. Fraunhofer is continuing to expand its research in the growth sector of aquaculture. As of January 1, 2022, the research team at Gesellschaft für Marine Aquakultur mbH has been integrated into Fraunhofer IMTE. By joining forces, the researchers aim to develop new solutions for environmentally responsible aquaculture methods.
Let’s not forget about algae. Chia seeds, nettles and kale are known as superfoods. But seaweed also contains valuable nutrients that should earn them a spot on the superfood list – they have a lot of fiber, proteins and minerals, for example. What’s more, seaweed is collected or cultivated in the ocean, so it doesn’t require farmland, fertilizer or large amounts of energy. It also removes the excess nutrients from fertilizer run-off from fields, which cause problems when they end up in the sea. In contrast to other superfood products, up until now, seaweed has mainly been available in tablet form as a food supplement. “We want seaweed – especially European seaweed – to be a more common entry on German menus,” explains Elke Böhme, group manager at Fraunhofer EMB. “And what better way to do that than with beer, one of the Germans’ favorite drinks?” With its distinctive flavor and interesting colors, seaweed can really give beers that certain something. Fraunhofer EMB has developed the manufacturing process – the seaweed beer can be produced in a standard brewery, and the seaweed is simply added during the brewing process. And if you’d prefer an alcohol-free version, the researchers have that covered, too: they’ve developed a brewed seaweed lemonade. But seaweed such as dulse and sugar kelp can be used in more than just beverages – they can also be made into seaweed ice cream and pesto, as various projects by Fraunhofer EMB have shown.
Microalgae, the smaller members of the sugar kelp family, also contain substances that offer health benefits: proteins, omega-3 fatty acids, various pigments with antioxidant effects, and phytosterols. In numerous projects, including the internal Future Proteins lighthouse project where they are collaborating with five other Fraunhofer institutes, researchers at Fraunhofer IGB are investigating how microalgae can be cultivated in a photobioreactor and processed into high-quality, healthy food. “In each case, we look at the entire chain from production to turning the microalgae into a food product, whether it’s a vegan sausage spread, a milkshake or shot,” explains Dr. Ulrike Schmid-Staiger, group manager at Fraunhofer IGB. One of the challenges here is the high energy requirement, as the algae need artificial lighting – sunlight alone is not enough. And as the green coloring in algae is less desirable for food products, the research team is developing new processes to remove the chlorophyll that creates this color. When the project comes to an end in December 2023, the team will have developed a healthy, new algae-based food product.
And last but not least, there’s fruit. Every year, 12 million tons of produce ends up in the garbage in Germany – and in many cases, it’s just because of non-standard shape or coloring. But crooked cucumbers and unusually shaped apples and tomatoes taste just as good as their cookie-cutter counterparts. “We urgently need new business models and alternative utilization strategies – both to limit waste and to give food back the value it deserves,” Prof. Büttner says. To this end, researchers at Fraunhofer IVV are working with the Berlin-based start-up Sprk GmbH to produce high-quality products from misshapen produce. Their method is based around drying fruit using a microwave-vacuum process developed by Fraunhofer IVV. “Unlike freeze-drying, which usually produces boring, soft products, we get a crispy product that can be eaten as a snack, similar to potato chips,” explains Prof. Peter Eisner, Deputy Director of Fraunhofer IVV.
While around 80 percent of production expenses usually go toward raw materials, at a cost of 10 to 20 euros per kilo, this is reduced down to nothing when your raw material is a by-product. “By focusing on food that would otherwise be thrown away, not only do costs go down, but sustainability and value creation increase at the same time – and you get a great flavor and crunch,” Prof. Eisner promises. Seeing as these fruits may often have brown spots, or unripe white patches in the case of strawberries, the researchers crush the different fruits together and produce a sort of puffed smoothie snack you can munch on. This more gentle processing method means that 50 to 80 percent of the fruits’ vitamins are retained – and as much as 100 percent of the proteins and minerals. The team has also found a use for the press cakes that are left after juicing the fruits. For example, pineapple press cakes are very nutritious due to the high fiber content and can be seasoned with mint and ginger or mango and paprika. The healthy snacks made from misshapen produce are scheduled to hit the market in early 2023.
Preventing food loss is also the goal of Fraunhofer IVV researchers working in the SHIELD project, which is focused on using sensory detection methods to produce safe, domestic, organic food. When it comes to rapidly perishable organic goods in particular, the sensory detection methods they develop should make it easier to produce quality forecasts and optimize logistics chains – and so respond to the actual needs of the food industry and consumers. “Just as we humans have multiple senses, we don’t rely on a single channel when it comes to our technological solution. Instead, we combine sensor technologies, optical methods and smart algorithms,” says Büttner. “The result is handheld devices and smart software that even small enterprises can use. We also want to establish methods that can be used to authenticate both raw materials and foods products,” explains Dr. Susann Vierbauch, who is coordinating the interdisciplinary consortium project.
From vegan eggs and petri-dish fish to pea cheese and seaweed beer, our diets are clearly changing. But what will the future taste like? “The future will have a much more regional flavor,” Prof. Büttner answers. “We’ll need to reinvent a lot of things produced domestically, and establish new means of value creation to avoid long transport chains that cause CO2 emissions. And we will rediscover lots of old ideas on a large scale.” The Fraunhofer institute director recalls the renaissance of processing and refining techniques such as fermentation. “What we eat today came about by chance. In times of crisis, people ate things that had actually gone off – and realized they tasted better and were more nourishing than their usual food.” Prof. Büttner explains that this is how bread, dairy products, cured sausages, vinegar and alcoholic beverages came into being. “We are continuing this process and developing it further, especially when it comes to plant-based raw materials. This way, we’re creating new textures and new foods that will shape our consumer behavior and tastes in the future.”
Not only can fermentation be used to produce imitations of familiar foods based on different raw materials, it can also help develop entirely new flavors. This brings up an exciting question: How can we pique consumers’ curiosity so that they try new types of food that might taste better to them and also protect the climate, animals and their health? After all, our tastes are by no means fixed and unchangeable. “What we like changes all the time,” notes Prof. Jessica Freiherr, group manager at Fraunhofer IVV.
This has been shown in a study whereby babies that initially refused to eat broccoli puree were offered it again and again – not in a forceful way, but tenderly and in a relaxed environment. After eight days, they liked the broccoli puree as much as carrot puree. Researchers at the institute are currently investigating the extent to which familiarity with certain foods will increase their acceptance by adults. One of their results showed that if adults drank special milkshakes with an unfamiliar flavor over seven days, they started to like the drink more.
So, can an egg developed entirely by humans actually taste good? García-Arteaga and Dr. Fürtauer have been investigating this in their first blind taste tests. Around 100 testers tried muffins and quiches made with Bettr Egg, as well as conventional versions made with chicken eggs. The results showed that 85 percent of testers could not tell which dish was made with vegan eggs and which with chicken eggs. 100 percent of testers thought the vegan quiche tasted better – they found it was moister and smelled nicer. When it comes to vegan eggs, at least, our tastes seem to be ready for the future – even if the egg can’t be dyed for Easter yet.
Kann also ein Ei, das gänzlich von Menschenhand entwickelt wurde, tatsächlich schmecken? Dies untersuchten García-Arteaga und Fürtauer in ersten Blindverkostungen mit etwa hundert Testpersonen, die BettrEgg in Form von Muffins und Quiche sowie herkömmliche, mit Hühnerei hergestellte Varianten probierten. Das Ergebnis: 85 Prozent der Testesser konnten nicht erkennen, welches Produkt auf veganem Ei und welches auf Hühnerei basierte. Bei der Quiche schmeckte 100 Prozent der Testpersonen die vegane Version besser. Sie empfanden sie als saftiger und angenehmer vom Geruch. Zumindest in Bezug auf das vegane Ei scheint unser Geschmackssinn also schon bereit zu sein für die Zukunft – auch wenn sich das Ei bislang noch nicht österlich färben lässt.