A recent announcement caught my attention. Sodexo, a global food services and facilities management company revealed it was collaborating with JUST Inc. to bring a new “egg” product offering to various sites that Sodexo supplies including universities, colleges, healthcare, and corporate sites.
If you haven’t heard of JUST, a review of their mission statement offers a peek into their world. They feel that the “tools” of our food system are limited; citing four core ingredients (“soy, corn, processed sugar, and animal protein”) as the problem because that’s what’s largely available to the food companies and manufacturers that make most of the foods in our food supply.
These ingredients, they say, are the making of “cheap and tasty” food that is accelerating chronic disease and climate change. It’s not that big companies don’t care, they do, they’re just limited by these ‘core’ ingredients making it difficult to do anything else. In short, “big food’s” hands are tied.
But, they go on; it’s not just the tools of the food systems that are the problem. There’s also a mindset that’s keeping the human race enslaved to poor quality food. We’ve apparently resigned to the idea that having “healthier, sustainable food that is also affordable and delicious” just isn’t possible.
Come again, again?
Cue the JUST Egg alternative.
I have to admit, I find the suggestion that food companies want to do better but can’t or that the public wants healthier foods but feel that’s a pipedream somewhat baffling. I applaud any effort to ensure we have healthy, sustainable, affordable, safe, and, of course, delicious food.
But, as a dietitian-nutritionist whose primary interest is in promoting and maintaining health using nutrient-dense, “real”, foods, I’m left feeling ripped off by the suggestion that a highly-processed food-like product like a JUST egg vegan product could ever fit the bill.
The February 6, 2020, joint press release by JUST Inc. and Sodexo on their partnership on a “breakfast solution for a better tomorrow” is at best confusing and at worst misleading.
For context, JUST Egg is a food product that is derived from mung beans. Through processing, the mung bean protein is isolated and forms the foundation of the product. Like all pulses (chickpeas, lentils, dried peas, and beans), mung beans are mostly carbohydrates but happen to have more protein than other plant foods like grains, nuts, or seeds.
Behold, plant based eggs
To be manipulated into an egg substitute, the protein in mung beans has to be separated from its carbohydrate content first. From there, it’s mixed with various ingredients that help it to look, taste, bake, and cook like a real egg.
JUST Eggs ingredients include water, mung bean protein isolate, canola oil, dehydrated onion, gellan gum, natural carrot extracts (colour), natural flavours, natural turmeric extract (colour), potassium citrate, salt, soy lecithin, sugar, tapioca syrup, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, transglutaminase, nisin (preservative).
In their own words, this highly-processed product has been designed to mimic an egg and make it indistinguishable from the real thing.
Hey, maybe it is, at least at the mouth and culinary level they’re indistinguishable…..maybe.
Companies spend millions of dollars on processed food formulation and it’s easy to understand why. Taste is the most important reason why we choose to eat what we do. In order for a food-like product to be accepted by consumers, it has to taste nearly as identical to the real thing.
As well, if a food substitute is going to be used in food preparation, it needs to hold up, otherwise baked goods or dishes like faux scrambled eggs or omelets wouldn’t last long on any menu.
But is that the goal? To find an alternative that fools the senses?
JUST Egg boasts that their product meets consumers’ desire for plant-based alternatives to foods that they’re no longer eating for a variety of reasons including wellness, and for who want healthier options.
This is where things get confusing.
Mung beans are held up as being better because they’re cholesterol-free however cholesterol is no longer considered a nutrient of concern according to the 2015 US Dietary Guidelines, as well as other research (1, 2). In other words, there’s no reason to limit or restrict foods, like real eggs, because of their cholesterol content (3). Likewise, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee no longer recommends limiting dietary fat intake (4).
Another sticking point that seems legit, at least on the surface, is when plant foods are compared to animal foods based on their respective protein content. But, when it comes to protein, it’s not just about quantity, it’s quality that matters most.
How well a food’s protein is digested and the efficiency with which its amino acids are used by your body is referred to as protein quality and is rated using the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS) among others (5, 6). Foods with a DIAAS value of 1.0 means that 100% of its protein is available to your body.
Animal foods have higher protein quality (great DIAAS value) compared to plants (5, 6). What this means in practical terms is that you’ll get more usable protein from animal foods compared to an equal amount of protein from plant foods.
For example, three large eggs provide 18 g of protein, all of which will be digested and used by your body. On the other hand, while one-cup of tofu has 20 g of protein, its lower DIAAS score of 0.52 means it won’t provide you with nearly as much useable protein, and therefore essential amino acids. Simply focusing on the total amount of protein is misleading, apples to oranges, either intentionally so or by design.
This brings me to the next point. To say that JUST Eggs meets demanding consumers who are looking for healthier breakfast options is a mystery to this seasoned nutritional professional.
JUST Egg nutrition compared to the real thing
When comparing one food to another, especially one that’s held up as an alternative, as a consumer I’d want to know I’m getting something that’s almost as good, if not the same, as the food I’m choosing to toss….
A one-egg equivalent of the highly-processed JUST eggs has:
- 70 calories
- 5 g fat
- 1 g carbohydrate
- 5 g protein
- 6 mg iron
Compared to one large (53 g) real egg (7)
- 76 calories
- 5 g fat
- 0.5 g carbohydrate
- 6 g protein
- 0.7 mg iron
- 66 mg phosphorus
- 0.6 mg zinc
- 18 mcg selenium
- 101 RAE vitamin A
- 1.4 mg niacin (B3) equivalents
- 1.3 mg pantothenic acid (B5)
- 0.26 mg riboflavin (B2)
- 1 mcg B12
- 160 mg choline
- 1.3 mg vitamin E
- 40 mg omega 3 DHA
- 175 mcg lutein and zeaxanthin
Kinda speaks for itself huh?
Another added bonus is that eggs have a low carbon footprint for food that delivers perfect protein. In fact, eggs are classified with soy and nuts as low in total Green House Gas Emissions by the World Resources Institute, 2018.
The real kicker is that JUST Egg comes from one plant in Minnesota and is transported all over North America. It’s true that eggs are transported as well but not to the same extent. It’s easy to choose more locally-produced and sourced eggs from egg producers across the country that come in environmentally friendlier packaging (carton crates).
It’s commendable to want healthy, sustainable, affordable, and, of course, delicious food. No one would argue that.
However, it’s also important to consider the big picture when it comes to food. There’s more to think about than whether or not a substitute looks, acts, smells, and tastes like the real thing.
As others have pointed out, real food doesn’t have an ingredient list, real food is the ingredient and this is no more apparent than comparing a real egg to a highly-processed food-like product designed to mimic the real thing.
Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on brain and mental health and antiaging nutrition. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.