See more of the story

Like many others with egg allergies or sensitivities, Nicole Atchison knows eggs aren't just used in scrambles — they show up in all kinds of products and recipes.

So the food company executive set out to develop a plant-based alternative that would work in a crème brûlée as well as it would in a breakfast burrito.

The result is AcreMade, the first consumer product from Minneapolis-based Puris, a leading pea protein supplier.

"We really wanted to bring something that was allergen-friendly and could be used in a variety of ways, not just the scramble," said Atchison, CEO of Puris Holdings and AcreMade. "Ultimately it's got to deliver on taste and appeal, and we feel we have a great product."

The powdered egg replacement, made largely with yellow peas, has had a limited retail rollout since it hit the market this fall. The early focus will be in food service, where Atchison hopes chefs can unlock the product's potential and boost the fledgling category.

"That's going to expose to people that plant-based food is just delicious food," Atchison said.

Vegan egg alternatives were slower to arrive than other plant-based categories, but they've grown just as rapidly — from $3 million in sales in 2018 to $39 million last year, according to the Good Food Institute and SPINS sales data. But just a small fraction of Americans — about 2% of households — reported buying plant-based eggs in 2021.

"It's important to understand who our core customers are in the beginning," Atchison said. "People who are leaning plant-based, looking for more sustainable options or who have egg allergies."

Globally, the market for vegan eggs could pass $3 billion over the next decade, according to a Fact.MR report, even as hen-laid egg consumption is expected to continue climbing.

Prairie protein

As is the case with much of the food industry here, Minnesota has quietly become a hub for plant-based eggs.

Just Egg, which accounts for the vast majority of plant-based egg sales, has had a manufacturing facility in the western Minnesota town of Appleton since 2019.

Nearly all the mung bean protein used in the company's liquid egg alternative is extracted in Appleton and sent to facilities that produce the finished product.

"Separating the protein from the bean requires talent, proprietary processing and a supportive community. We found all that and more in Appleton," said Josh Tetrick, CEO of Eat Just Inc., when announcing the facility purchase in 2019.

Today, the plant employs 50 people, about 20% of the small California-based company's total head count. Eat Just Inc. added 10,000 square feet of production space in Minnesota this year and intends to keep growing as demand increases.

Atchison said there's room for — and a need for — more players in the egg alternative market.

"We think their product is really good, and there is room for more than one option," she said. "Eggs are used in a lot of different areas that need to be addressed, and AcreMade is working on a handful of those."

At a recent event for Naturally Minnesota, a food-ag booster based at the University of Minnesota, AcreMade was highlighted in a cheesecake rather than in an egg-focused dish. The brand is also getting featured at Craft & Crew restaurants such as the Block in St. Louis Park.

Eggs still cracking

For the egg industry, a decade of rapid growth in per capita egg consumption peaked in 2019 as the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain problems and bird flu disrupted production.

Egg prices are expected to remain high well into 2023 as poultry flocks devastated by bird flu are repopulated. That creates an opportunity for brands like Just Egg and AcreMade to make their case to consumers.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) expects Americans to keep eating more and more eggs in the coming years. By 2031, an estimated 310 eggs will be consumed per person annually, up from 280 per capita today.

"Despite record high price levels, shell eggs continue to be a competitively-priced protein with the added benefit of offering a wider range of meal applications to consumers than other proteins," a recent USDA report notes. "Of course, there is no substitute for baking holiday treats."

In fact, egg substitutes that recreate the binding function of eggs — though not the look or taste — have been on the market for a long time and have been a staple of vegan baking. New egg replacement brands are trying to raise the profile of the product the way Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods did with veggie burgers.

The egg industry fought a bruising battle against Tetrick's vegan mayo brand several years ago, but for now has its hands full overcoming bird flu and supply chains.

In this 2021 file photo, Nicole Atchison, CEO of Puris Holdings, attended a meeting in the company’s Minneapolis headquarters.
In this 2021 file photo, Nicole Atchison, CEO of Puris Holdings, attended a meeting in the company’s Minneapolis headquarters.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune, Star Tribune

"Despite egg manufacturers struggling to provide an alternative to people who do not consume eggs, they are skeptical that plant-based eggs can replicate all eggs' nutrients and functionalities," according to a 2021 article in the Journal of International Food & Agribusiness Marketing. "Egg industries do not see plant-based eggs as potential competitors to their products."

Atchison said it doesn't have to be a direct competition.

"Is there a way for these products to coexist to establish a more sustainable food system?" she said. "Egg producers see the same things we're talking about: the need to diversify sources of nutrition, lowering carbon footprints and adding resiliency to food production."

As overall plant-based sales begin to plateau and the industry matures, Atchison said "there's work to do."

"Plant-based is trying to operate in a system that was built a long time ago around the food available then," she said. "We're undeterred and figuring out how to address a generation that hasn't yet decided how it relates to food — and offering great products that aren't just what they're used to eating."