In the future will the McMuffin be eggless? Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
In the future will the McMuffin be eggless? Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Eggs are great. They're cheap. They're plentiful. They're a protein-rich dietary staple. They're the culinary glue holding together quiches and cakes. They're one half of a profound existential question: Which comes first?

And now, apparently, they're passé. The egg has come under attack from a technology startup offering plant-based egg alternatives. San Francisco-based Hampton Creek Foods has sparked quite the Internet buzz while attracting high-profile investors, including Microsoft's Bill Gates and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and raising some $6 million. The goal, as the Wall Street Journal's Farhad Manjoo reports, is to "surpass" the egg with products that are free of cholesterol, longer-lasting, more ecologically sustainable, more humane and cheaper than the chicken-based original. In other words: calling all vegans, cholesterol counters and thrifty shoppers.

Hampton Creek currently has two faux-egg consumer products: Just Mayo, now sold in Whole Foods, and a powdered egg alternative for baking (and eating cookie batter salmonella-free!). Next up: an egg-substitute liquid, Just Scrambled, that can be fried like scrambled eggs.

Egg producers have begun firing back. The American Egg Board is running online ads against Google search terms linked to Hampton Creek's eggless products. With about 1.8 trillion eggs laid globally each year, you can build up a surplus pretty quickly. Will plant-based alternatives spell the end of Big Egg?

Egg-laying chickens are often crammed into tiny, dirty spaces, which can cause disease outbreaks. Egg production also wastes energy and pollutes the environment. (A recent study shows the impact of livestock production on public health and the environment, and highlights the potential for more efficient production.) Then there's cost.

For now, the vegetarian egg seems more a quirky technology stunt than a solution to a pressing global problem. But who knows? In the future, maybe we'll keep ourselves occupied with the question "Which came first: egg or eggless?"

(Kirsten Salyer is the social media editor for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)