It’s organic, low-cholesterol and enriched with vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. But it’s neither a food supplement nor any exotic seaweed extract. Rich praise is now being heaped on the poor man’s protein — eggs. To cater to the finicky, odourless eggs are in the market and they can even be used to make egg drinks, jams and chutneys.

From Panipat to Surat and Coimbatore to Delhi, a handful of companies have invested in giving the common chicken egg a makeover beyond the sunny-side-up cheeriness, and the results are showing — specialised eggs are flying off the shelves and more money is going into researching newer products.

When ML Kansal retired as an animal science professor from Punjab Agriculture University in 1997, he knew exactly what he wanted to do next — chase his quarter-century-old dream of creating the odourless egg. He had long wondered why that cannot be and why human beings were forced to indirectly ingest the antibiotics fed to poultry. He began his research soon after retirement to create not only odourless, but also healthier eggs. That led to the Kansal’s brand of eggs, Kansal Agro, now available across retail outlets ranging from Hypercity and Metro Cash & Carry to Walmart and Aditya Birla Retail.

Down south, in Coimbatore, Suguna Foods carved a niche for itself by offering four varieties of specialised low-cholesterol eggs rich in DHA (omega-3 fatty acid), carotenoids and Vitamin D. These are available both at its stores and at several trade chains, supermarkets and convenience stores.

And Keggs, the company that began selling branded eggs in India in 2002, is retailing its product at ₹95 for a pack of six — three times more expensive than unbranded eggs. But that hasn’t hindered sales growth for Keggs, as also Suguna and Kansal.

Cracking the market

“The demand for specialised eggs is rising rapidly. Until a few months ago, we were sending 50 boxes (of 24 eggs each) to Mumbai every week. The number is now 80 in Mumbai and over 100 in Bengaluru and Hyderabad,” says Kansal.

Table egg production in India is estimated to have more than doubled from 30 billion in 2000 to 70 billion in 2013, driven by increased domestic consumption, according to the ratings agency ICRA (Andhra Pradesh is the largest producer of eggs countrywide). The number of eggs eaten by an individual in a year has increased from 28 to 57 during this period.

Figures are still unavailable, but specialised eggs, in their odourless and low-cholesterol avatars, are believed to have fuelled this growth story.

Kansal and Suguna have evolved multiple techniques to get their eggs right. “These are highly researched products developed by enriching the nutrient content of the hen’s feed,” says GB Sundararajan, managing director at Suguna Foods.

Pointing out that the antibiotics administered to poultry are passed on to human beings through their eggs and meat, Kansal says, “Naturally, we develop resistance to those medicines. We decided to do away with chemicals and medicines by using traditional Ayurvedic herbs, which also fortify nutrition.”

Herbs in the mix

Kansal Agro adds to its layer feed a mixture of 21 herbs in powder form, including amla, tulsi, neem and bahera, which have anti-bacterial, antioxidant and anti-fungal properties. Herbal extracts are also added to the poultry’s drinking water. “Apart from improving nutrition content, it also increases the shelf-life of the eggs,” Kansal says.

The eggs can be stored for eight weeks at room temperature and for over a year in a refrigerator. Even bacteria like salmonella and E-coli, present to the extent of 3-10 per cent in regular eggs, were undetected in the specialised eggs, according to the international testing and certification company TUV-SUD.

Kansal says different feeds are used for different kinds of specialised eggs. For eggs rich in omega-3 fatty acids, the hens are fed flaxseed meals fortified with oils rich in unsaturated fatty acids.

To get odourless eggs, Kansal adds a mixture of herbs, which is his “trade secret”. The herbal, odourless egg comes packed with vitamins. About 100 ml of this specialised egg liquid contains three times more Vitamin A, eight times more Vitamin D3, ten times more Vitamin E and five times more folic acid than a regular egg. It also scored higher on other nutritional parameters, under testing by the Poultry Disease Diagnostic Laboratory of Venkateshwara Hatcheries. The cholesterol content was down to 179mg, compared to 420mg in regular eggs.

Suguna’s Sundararajan says the company’s specialised Active Egg contains 370mg of DHA — sufficient to meet an individual’s daily requirement. “These eggs also fully meet Vitamin E requirement and up to 83 per cent of an individual’s selenium requirement,” he adds.

His ₹5,350-crore company relies on a network of over 2,000 poultry farmers, mainly in villages. “We procure eggs from select bio-secure farms, which follow the highest standards of layer farming. They are tested for nutrient content by authorised labs,” he says.

Keggs, founded by Vinod Kapur in 1993, also spread wings far and wide on the strength of its business model of supplying day-old chicks to poultry farmers. Kapur developed a new hybrid chicken breed, Kuroiler, in the early ’90s. This variety lives on kitchen and agricultural waste and can produce around 160 eggs a year. Keggs’ mantra? Near-organic eggs that are not only more nutritious but also tastier.

“They are not fed any chemicals or antibiotics or growth hormones. Unlike other egg sellers who keep birds in cages, we keep our birds in open houses, each having 100-200 birds. They have access to nature, sunshine and a friendly environment,” says Kapur.

Keggs eggs, he says, are infertile, cage-free, near-organic and produced with natural feeds. “Our egg is aimed at the discerning and well-heeled customer,” he says. With rising per capita and disposable incomes, more Indians are willing to spend on healthier foods.

Keggs eggs are not only much bigger and tan-coloured, but also come packed in corrugated sheet. Each egg has a hologram, signifying it has been individually tested. “We were the first to introduce eggs with expiry date. We take back eggs beyond the printed date,” says Kapur.

These are sold as commodity eggs as they have a long shelf-life. Compared to regular eggs, priced ₹4-5 each, speciality eggs are costlier. Suguna’s six eggs with ‘veg feed and no bad odour’ are priced ₹45, while a pack of six enriched eggs for diabetics cost ₹48. Kansal Agro’s pricing starts at ₹70 for six odourless eggs and goes up to ₹80 for the omega-3 and vitamin-rich herbal eggs.

In the online basket

“We incur huge transportation and logistics costs. Locally (in Panipat) our eggs can be bought for a rupee each. But sending them to other states on trains, loading and unloading them, involves high costs. Commission for sellers also varies,” says Kansal. These are the very reasons why some of these companies are not exporting yet. “We want to explore foreign markets in the future,” Kansal says.

In the meantime, the proliferation of online grocery sites has hatched a golden opportunity for the domestic eggs industry. Keggs eggs are available at nearly all major grocery sites. Ditto for Kansal.

“We don’t have the resources to set up our own website. We are selling through other sites and retail outlets,” Kansal adds. Suguna, too, is keen to expand to other markets after expanding in the South and West, says Sundararajan.

But rather than increasing their points of sales, the speciality egg companies are keener on innovating to create newer products. Visitors to Kansal Agro farms in Panipat are regularly served egg cold drinks. Its egg jam and chutney made with odourless eggs are gaining a following too, and the company has applied for regulatory permissions, says Kansal.