Americans love eggs. And it is a consuming love. We eat about 280 eggs a year (more than half an egg per day).
But lately, that love is costing us dearly: The price of eggs has roughly tripled since the pandemic began and egg shortages are hitting parts of the country. That combination has created a rare window of opportunity for substitutes.
The price of most food has risen over the last year and while that has caused a lot of shock and hardship for people across the country, the price of eggs has struck a particular chord. Eggs are often seen a cheap, reliable source of protein — a go-to when other things get expensive.
When the price of eggs goes up, people get emotional.
"It's a hot button for consumers," says Bill Lapp, president of Advanced Economic Solutions, a food industry consultant. "It's similar to driving down the highway and seeing gas prices at $5.30."
Of course, it's not just emotional: The price of eggs has risen more than the price of almost anything else in the economy.
The reason? A lot of it has to do with the usual suspects: rising energy prices and rising prices for feed, packaging and labor.
With eggs, though, there is another culprit: A devastating avian flu has killed millions of chickens over the last year. The supply of eggs in the US has plummeted and, in some places, it's hard to get eggs at all.
"A lot of people are concerned with not being able to get eggs," says Ron Kern, a chicken farmer in Nampa, Idaho.
He hears this from his customers: they go to the supermarket and there aren't any eggs. "These huge freezers are empty," he says. That has people worried that eggs might start being hard to find.
That eggsistential angst gave Kern an idea.
Kern runs Back Forty Farms in Nampa, Idaho, where it is 4 p.m. — time to feed the chickens.
Kern walks into the coop with a bucket of feed and hundreds of chickens rush in from all directions: fluttering down from their roosts, hustling in from outside.
As the chickens peck at their food, Ron Kern and his son Tony gather up the eggs — a mix of green, blue, white and brown. They are very careful with them. These eggs are valuable. Especially now.
A few years ago, these eggs would have been packaged into boxes and sold for about $3 a dozen, but these days, most of them go straight into a freeze dryer.
Freeze dried gold dust
Instead of selling fresh eggs, Kern now freeze dries most of them.
The freeze dryers are about the size of a mini fridge and a row of them hums away in a little building near Kern's chicken coop.
The eggs Kern and his son just collected will be cleaned, cracked, whipped and poured into cookie sheets that go into the freeze dryers.
The freeze dryers reduce the eggs to a bright yellow powder. "Looks kind of like gold dust," remarks Kern. "I guess it kind of is gold dust, right?"
The proof is in the profits
Kern charges about $20 a dozen for his freeze dried eggs. He tells me this is a good deal: the eggs weigh almost nothing, keep for decades, don't lose any nutritional value and come in a little mylar envelope, which stores easily.
And, mostly, it gives customers peace of mind: whatever supply chain disasters, deadly flus, price spikes and shortages the economy might throw at us, they will still have their beloved breakfast dish.
The proof is in the profits. The monent Kern started selling his eggs online, orders poured in from all across the country.
"The demand went nuts," he recalls. "Every single package that we put on our online store was sold within 30 seconds. They just ... fly off the shelves," He adds: "I'm not even a pun person, but there you go."
(Incidentally, nobody, not even authors of government reports, seems able to resist egg puns — they are ineggscapable.)
Economics vs eggonomics
Basic economics tells us that when the price of something rises, people will buy less of it: Demand goes down.
But eggonomics is a different story, says Bill Lapp. Even when the price of eggs go up, people buy them. This is what is called 'inelastic demand' in economics, meaning that it's something people will buy no matter what.
Inelastic demand is usually reserved for necessities, like gasoline, electricity etc. Eggs are an exception.
"The demand for eggs is pretty inelastic," says Lapp. "It's a cheap source of protein, it's convenient and consumers are very very fond of cracking that shell open and cooking their egg. The demand has been slow to change."
Any interest in a mung bean omelet?
Demand might be slow to change, but supply is another story. The eggceptional circumstances around eggs over the last few years has created a major business opportunity for food companies.
All kinds of egg alternatives have been cropping up: Not only freeze dried eggs, but also plant based egg products. Those are usually soy or bean based liquids that resemble scrambled eggs when you cook them up.
For the first time last year, egg alternatives were cheaper than real eggs. And, not surprisingly, sales of egg substitutes rose by nearly 20%, according to Chicago based market research firm, IRI.
JUST Egg, which makes a mung-bean based scrambled egg product, has reportedly seen sales rise by about 17% over the last year.
Right now, if you can make something that looks like an egg, tastes like an egg, and costs less than an egg, you can make a lot of money.
An eggceptionally unscientific taste test
But do the substitute egg products actually taste like eggs? Do they have a shot at getting between Americans and their beloved eggs? I got some of my NPR colleagues together to try some of the eggternatives and see if they've managed to crack the code.
I don't think eggs are going to lose their superstar status anytime soon (one of my colleagues remarked that the plant-based eggs tasted like potatoes, another colleague described them as "super interesting... but nothing like eggs").
That's all, yolks
But never fear, egg lovers! Science is moving quickly: The first plant based fried egg has just been developed by a start up in Israel and investors are pouring billions of dollars into food start ups that are working to tackle the elusive egg.
One thing is for sure: If egg prices stay high and supply stays spotty, customers could start getting serious about looking for the eggsit.
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Eggs have been on a wild ride these past few months. According to the consumer price index, the cost of eggs has risen more than any other grocery category over the past year. And because avian flu has killed millions of chickens, the supply is way below normal levels. That's raised prices even more and has made eggs hard to get in some places. All of this is creating an opportunity for substitutes, as NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith reports.
STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Americans are obsessed with eggs. Almost nobody eats as many eggs as we do. About 280 eggs per person per year, which is about half an egg a day. But it is not just the quantity. We get emotional about our eggs. And when prices rise, people kind of lose their minds, says Bill Lapp, president of Advanced Economic Solutions, which does consulting for food companies.
BILL LAPP: It's a hot button for consumers, similar to driving down the highway and seeing gas prices at $5.30.
VANEK SMITH: Since 2020, the average price of a dozen eggs has roughly tripled to more than $4 a dozen. And even at those prices, in some areas, it is hard to find eggs at all. Ron Kern, a chicken farmer, hears this from customers all the time.
RON KERN: A lot of people are concerned with not being able to get eggs.
VANEK SMITH: Kern runs Back Forty Farms in Nampa, Idaho. And it is 4 p.m. Time to feed the chickens.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN FEED RUSTLING)
VANEK SMITH: Kern walks into the coop. And hundreds of chickens start rushing in from all directions, flying down from the rafters, hustling in from outside. They are excited.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICKEN CROWING)
VANEK SMITH: As the chickens peck at their food, Ron Kern and his son, Tony, gather up the eggs very carefully. These eggs are valuable. A few years ago, they would have been packaged into boxes and sold for about $3 a dozen. But these days, most of them go straight into this machine.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE WHIRRING)
VANEK SMITH: You mind just telling me what we're looking at?
KERN: Yeah. So this is basically just a freeze dryer. We have six.
VANEK SMITH: Instead of selling fresh eggs, Kern now freeze dries most of his eggs. The freeze dryers reduce the eggs to a shiny powder.
It's very yellow.
KERN: Yeah. It looks kind of like gold doesn't it, gold dust? And I guess now it's kind of like gold dust, right?
VANEK SMITH: For a dozen freeze dried eggs, Kern charges about $20. But Kern says that is a good price. They last for more than 20 years. They weigh less than two ounces. And they come in a little mylar envelope, which is very easy to store. Mostly, though, Kern says, it helps people with their existential angst. The second he started selling them on his website, orders started pouring in from all over the country.
KERN: The demand, it went nuts. Literally every single package that we put on our store was sold within 30 seconds.
VANEK SMITH: Basic economics will tell you that when the price of something rises, people will buy less of it. Demand will go down. But egg-onomics (ph) is a little different, says economist Bill Lapp, because even when the price of eggs goes up, people still buy them.
LAPP: This is a cheap source of protein. And it's convenience. And consumers are very, very fond of cracking that shell open and cooking their eggs. So a lot of the demand would be slow to change.
VANEK SMITH: Demand for eggs might be slow to change, but supply is another story. All kinds of egg alternatives have been cropping up, not only freeze dried eggs, but also plant-based egg products. Those are usually soy or bean-based liquids that kind of resemble scrambled eggs when you cook them. For the first time last year, plant-based alternatives were cheaper than real eggs. And sales rose nearly 20%, according to market research firm IRI. I mean, right now, if you can make something that looks like an egg, tastes like an egg and costs less than an egg, you can make a lot of money.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD SIMMERING)
VANEK SMITH: But those are some big ifs. So I got a few of my NPR colleagues together to try some of these egg alternatives and see if anybody has cracked the code.
JAMILA HUXTABLE, BYLINE: Hi. My name is Jamila Huxtable. And I'm here to try some eggs.
VANEK SMITH: What are your feelings about eggs normally?
HUXTABLE: I like a good egg.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: My name is Alina Selyukh. And if there was one food I could eat for the rest of my life and nothing else, it would be eggs.
ADAM RANEY, BYLINE: My name is Adam Raney. And I love eggs.
VANEK SMITH: So I scrambled up some plant-based eggs, some dehydrated eggs and some regular fresh eggs with just a little milk, a little butter, a little salt. I put them into separate, unlabeled dishes and served them to our egg lovers. So everybody liked the fresh eggs, also, mostly liked the dehydrated eggs.
HUXTABLE: Flavorful. Spongy, a little spongy.
VANEK SMITH: But now for the big one, the plant-based eggs.
RANEY: This one is super interesting. But it doesn't taste like egg.
SELYUKH: I agree.
RANEY: And maybe I'm wrong, but that does not taste like an egg.
SELYUKH: That tastes like potatoes. It's messing with my head.
HUXTABLE: I don't know. I'm not loving these. They look a little wetter, too, look a little soggier.
VANEK SMITH: So for the moment, it seems like the real eggs have it. But science is moving fast. The first plant-based fried egg has been developed by a startup in Israel. And investors are pouring billions of dollars into food startups that are trying to tackle the egg. After all, if egg prices stay high, customers may get really serious about looking for the eggs-it (ph).
Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.