J-STORIES - Chicken eggs are used in cooking all over the world, but climate change and soaring commodity prices are a serious threat to chicken farming. In Japan and other countries, the spread of bird flu has resulted in mass poultry culls. Meanwhile, amid a trend for “ethical consumption”, more and more shoppers are shunning chicken eggs.
Perhaps these issues could be addressed while still retaining the delicious texture and taste of egg. That was the challenge a Japanese startup set itself. And its solution was to develop an egg substitute made mainly from the traditional Japanese ingredient of konjac flour. “Umami Egg” by Tokyo-based Umami United Japan is now being marketed in Japan and overseas.
Although Umami Egg comes in the form of a powder, when used in cooking its taste and texture is similar to real chicken eggs. For example, omelets and scrambled eggs can be made just by mixing the powder with soy milk and heating. According to the company, it can also replace eggs in French toast, caramel custard, and baked goods.
Umami Egg is not the first plant-derived egg substitute, but one of its unique characteristics is its texture similar to that of real egg. Made with konjac flour and bittern (a coagulant used in the production of tofu), when heated it has a fluffy and moist texture like that of tofu or konnyaku. According to CEO Hiroto Yamazaki, this is quite unlike the dry texture of existing soybean-based egg substitutes.
The key to another Umami Egg characteristic is in its name. The company uses unique technology to process kikurage (jelly ear) mushrooms, reproducing the taste and umami of real egg. As the mushrooms would otherwise be discarded because of overproduction, an added benefit is the prevention of food loss.
Twenty-five grams of Umami Egg powder costs 1,500 yen (retail price) and can produce 500 grams of plant-based egg, which is the equivalent of ten medium-sized chicken eggs. Although this is more expensive than real eggs, the product is ideal for vegetarians, vegans, and those who cannot eat eggs due to medical reasons such as egg allergy or needing to reduce cholesterol intake.
What’s more, because the powder can be stored for long periods of time, it could serve as a food source during emergencies or in the event that egg production cannot keep up with popular growth.
Yamazaki told J-Stories that Umami Egg was inspired by his experiences as a student guiding foreign tourists in Japan.
“For various different reasons, such as veganism, allergies, or religion, many people cannot eat certain foods. I realized that food diversification is still lagging, not just in Japan, but around the world,” said Yamazaki.
After graduating, he continued to work on “food diversity” and set up his company in 2023.
“I want to break down barriers and create a world where people from different backgrounds can sit around the same table.”
Currently, the company’s main customers are food manufacturers and hotels that produce and sell sweets and baked goods. Yamazaki aims to expand sales overseas to suppliers of meals to American universities and corporations. To this end, the company raised a total of $500,000 from overseas investors in January and then another 240 million yen in August.
The company is also working on a new product that could replace egg whites, which are used in large quantities in the confectionery, noodle, and fish paste industries. Currently, it is close to completing a trial product.
While the company’s current egg substitute requires customers to add liquid such as soy milk, Yamazaki says he hopes to one day offer a product that fully replaces real egg by itself.
Translated by Tony McNicol
Top page photo provided by Umami United Japan
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