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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Animal-Free Egg Whites:
The Next Frontier in Ethical, Sustainable Protein

No chickens were harmed in the making of Onego Bio’s Bioalbumen — which has a 90% lower carbon footprint than traditional egg production, 10 times better yields and at price parity.

There are several problems with eggs. From unethical poultry-farming practices to packaging and distribution, the production of eggs — a dietary staple worldwide — carries a fairly hefty environmental and animal-welfare burden.

In all corners of the planet, the egg industry puts pressure on resources and water. Plus, excessive land-use change, harmful use of antibiotics and chemicals, and the industry’s associated greenhouse gas emissions are all taking their toll.

This year, avian flu created another challenge — causing major supply chain issues and skyrocketing prices. In the US alone, avian flu has caused around 40 million animal losses and cost the economy up to $3 billion.

Egg is one of the world’s most versatile and widely used animal proteins, and plays a critical role in food manufacturing to bind, thicken, coat, leaven, emulsify and foam. Egg production has almost doubled in the past 20 years, and is set to reach 138 million tons by 2030; but ethically and sustainably meeting the ongoing demand for eggs remains a struggle.

To sate our appetite for more and more eggs, a number of startups have launched to provide more sustainable solutions. Among them is Onego Bio, the only company of its kind producing nature-identical ovalbumin protein — the main protein in egg white. According to the company, its Bioalbumen has a 90 percent lower carbon footprint than traditional egg production, with ten times better yields and a 20 percent lower production cost.

Oh, and it offers the same nutritional value as egg whites; and foams, gels, binds and leavens just as well, too. Just 1kg, or 2.2 pounds, of Bioalbumen produces the egg white equivalent of 277 eggs.

The idea for producing egg proteins in such a way was initially born at the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland, where company co-founder Chris Landowski spent 15 years. There, he experimented with precision fermentation — a 50-year-old technology that enables microorganisms to produce complex molecules, such as proteins identical to the natural ones; the tech has recently enabled the production of nature-identical, animal-free, sustainable alternatives to conventional dairy and cosmetics ingredients, to name a few. The process — similar to brewing beer — has been used for many years for producing food additives, such as enzymes.

In 2016, Landowski and his team started producing alternative egg and milk proteins. Later, he teamed up with fellow co-founder and the firm’s CEO, Maija Itkonen, with the aim of becoming a serious player in the alternative-protein industry.

“Bioalbumen is nature-identical to ovalbumin, which is the primary protein in egg white that is responsible for most of egg white’s functionalities,” Itkonen tells Sustainable Brands®. “So, Bioalbumen can directly replace not only egg white powder but even whole eggs in some food recipes.”

The startup’s biotech process is based on harnessing the microorganism Trichoderma reesei, which is superior in transforming carbohydrates to protein because it is a protein producer by nature.

“We have trained the Trichoderma reesei to produce ovalbumin, instead of its own proteins. No chickens are needed in the process, as they get the information from scientific genetic databases that work like a library of life,” Itkonen adds.

The micro-organisms are left to grow in an optimal environment in a bioreactor. Depending on the process stage, the team either lets it gorge on glucose and nutrients or starves it with little food at all, so that the production reaches the highest possible levels. At the end of the process, the bioreactor is filled with ovalbumin, water and biomass from the micro-organism. The company separates the biomass from the egg white, and dries the liquid into powder form to produce Bioalbumen. The company says its production technology is unique in that it can be scaled up into large, industrial bioreactors, producing levels of the desired protein very efficiently.

Long a staple in other cultures, fermented foods have grown in popularity in the West in recent years — with consumers enjoying the associated health benefits. Onego Bio is banking on people having a similar affiliation with precision fermentation — and its ability to create animal-free products.

“We’re confident consumers will see this as a positive advancement in our food system,” Itkonen asserts. “Egg is a necessary ingredient in countless food and beverage products, which means the demand is already there. Egg white is perfect in nutrition and functionality; but the way it’s currently produced is not sustainable. There is a growing demand for animal-free alternatives.”

With a significant consumer shift toward flexitarian and plant-based lifestyles, the company hopes to tap into “the next big, disruptive wave,” as Itkonen puts it.

So, what’s next for the business? Having already received recognition since launching in February 2022 — as a winner of Fast Company’s 2023 World-Changing Ideas Awards — Onego Bio will start manufacturing and commercial operations next year in the US.

Meanwhile, Bioalbumen is in the process of getting FDA approval.

“We’re working with several major CPG companies who are testing Bioalbumen,” Itkonen says. “Precision fermentation is the newest chapter in the history of making food with microbes. And egg is a smart starting point for next-level proteins.”