The plant-based ‘fish’ is here (and lab-grown versions are coming soon)
Chef Tsang Chiu King is preparing a subtle but significant change to his menu: he replaces the fish in certain dishes with a plant-based alternative.
“Its flavor is light and bland and the texture, like grouper, is a bit harsher,” Mr. Tsang said, referring to the alternative fish varieties he tested at Ming Court, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Hong Kong. To enhance the flavor, he adds ingredients like dates and goji berries.
“It can give our customers a new experience or a surprise, and it will help our business,” he said.
Plant-based products have burst into the food mainstream in the United States, after years in which vegan burgers and milk alternatives have hovered on the outskirts of the market. This is in part because more and more companies are targeting omnivores who are looking to reduce the amount of meat they consume, rather than foregoing it altogether.
Now, as sophisticated alternatives to fish start to attract investment and land in restaurants in the United States and beyond, people who follow the fishless fish business say it could be on the verge of a boom. significant growth.
One of the reasons, they say, is that consumers in rich countries are increasingly aware of the seafood industry’s environmental issues, including overfishing and the health risks of some seafood. Another is that today’s plant-based start-ups do a better job of approximating the flavor and texture of fish than previous ones – an important consideration for non-vegetarians.
“This is not your grandfather’s alternative fish stick,” said Joshua Katz, an analyst at the McKinsey consulting firm who has studied the alternative protein industry.
“There are already a number of people considering alternative burgers,” he added. “You could actually say, ‘I should be working on something else,’ and seafood is still a huge market with compelling reasons to work in it.”
People who cut back on animal protein for environmental reasons often stop eating red meat, which requires huge amounts of land and water to grow crops and releases a lot of methane as a by-product.
But alt-fish advocates say seafood also causes environmental problems. Unsustainable fishing practices have decimated fishing in recent decades, a problem both for biodiversity and the millions of people who depend on the sea for their income and food.
“It’s just a smarter way to make seafood,” said Mirte Gosker, acting chief executive of the Good Food Institute Asia Pacific, a nonprofit advocacy group that promotes alternative proteins. “Complete stop.”
So far, plant-based seafood in the United States accounts for just 0.1 percent of the country’s seafood sales, less than the 1.4 percent of the U.S. meat market occupied. by plant-based meat substitutes, according to the Good Food Institute.
But seafood companies around the world received at least $ 83 million from investors in 2020, up from $ 1 million three years earlier, according to institute data. Last June, 83 companies produced alternative seafood products around the world, almost three times more than in 2017.
All but 18 of these 83 companies focus on herbal products. Six others, including a French start-up which makes smoked salmon from microalgae, specializing in proteins from fermentation. A dozen others are developing laboratory-grown seafood, which is not yet commercially available in any country.
Impossible Foods, a dominant force in the alternative protein industry, has been developing a fish-free fish project for years. Jessica Appel, a spokesperson for the company, said it does not yet make alternative fishing products.
Other large companies are. California seafood giant Bumble Bee Foods, for example, said last year it was partnership with Good Catch, a plant-based seafood company in Pennsylvania that sells products like fake fish fingers and crab cakes at Whole Foods and other retailers.
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Some start-ups are developing alternative fish proteins designed to mimic raw fish. One of them, Kuleana, sells a plant-based version of sushi-grade tuna in Los Angeles markets and nationwide through the Poké Bar restaurant chain.
Even though fake breaded fish fingers have worked well so far, products that attempt to approach raw fish will still need to improve if the industry is to appeal to non-vegetarians, said Jacek Prus, chief executive of Kuleana.
“Basically we still have to improve the product,” he said. “This is the biggest challenge: how do you recreate a structure in a really convincing way and a sensation in the mouth? “
Eyes on Asia
Of the 65 companies currently producing plant-based seafood, 47 are outside the United States, according to the Good Food Institute. People in the industry say the Asia-Pacific region is a logical place to anticipate significant growth as it already consumes more than two-thirds of the world’s fish, according to a United Nations estimate.
Thai Union, one of the world’s largest processors of canned conventional tuna, said in March it had created OMG Meat, a brand of alternative proteins targeting “flexitarians” who want to reduce their carbon footprint. And start-up New Singularity has been selling algae-based fermented alt fish products in mainland China since last year.
In Hong Kong, the company Green Monday has been rolling out alternative fish at several sites since June. This includes Ming Court, where Mr. Tsang is flavoring faux grouper with goji berries.
Green Monday sells its bogus brand of pork, OmniPork, in approximately 40,000 locations around the world, including Britain, the United States, and much of the Asia-Pacific region. David Yeung, chief executive of the company, said he expected OmniSeafood to have a presence in most, if not all, of the same markets within six months.
Mr. Yeung said his company designed its fake fish products to meet various tastes and cooking methods. Americans like to grill or pan-fry fish, for example, while the Chinese often boil it in a pot.
“You can’t tell consumers that you can only fry but not steam, or you can only steam but you cannot put in a pot,” he said. “You can’t do that because to them fish is fish.”
A future cultivated in the laboratory?
The next frontier is laboratory-grown seafood, in which edibles are grown from real cells in the laboratory. This technology is still a long way from retail sales and large-scale marketing, although perhaps not as far as many consumers would assume.
So far, the only company selling cultured protein of any kind is Eat Just, a San Francisco start-up whose cultured chicken nuggets were approved for sale in Singapore at the end of the year. last. The city-state Food Agency said in a brief statement that it had yet to approve “any other cultured meat product.”
Ms. Gosker of the Good Food Institute said more cultured protein start-ups could receive regulatory approval later this year in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration said last october that products containing cultured seafood cells “may soon enter the US market”.
At least two fish farming companies in California – BlueNalu from San Diego and Wild type of San Francisco – have already announced plans to start selling commercially in the near future. Shiok meats, a cell-based meat and seafood company in Singapore, also said it plans to “market” next year.
Frea Mehta, a German scientist specializing in cell farming, said any cultivated seafood that hits the market will almost certainly be a hybrid of lab-grown and plant-based technologies. This is because companies will need to enclose cells in a plant-based “scaffolding” to give them structure, at least until the science of cell farming improves.
Ms. Mehta, who works for the farmed seafood company Bluu Biosciences, said one of the challenges in developing lab-grown seafood is that scientists generally don’t know as much about marine species as they do about mammals.
It will not help, she added, that animals defined as “seafood” are often far from each other in the organism classification system. This means that it would be a challenge to move from cell-based fish production to, say, lobster, a marine invertebrate.
“From a cooking point of view, that makes sense,” she said. “From a biological point of view, it’s not at all because they’re very, very different.”
Tiffany May and Amy Chang Dog contributed reports.