Something's fishy

29 December 2023

The fish-free diet has been on an exponential rise, with animal welfare, environmental impact and health concerns driving its popularity. As food science innovation continues apace, there have never been so many fish alternatives readily available at your local supermarket. Abi Millar speaks to the experts to find out how suppliers are providing novel plant-based fish.

The plant-based meat market is going from strength to strength. While brands like Quorn and Tofurkey have been available for decades now, the market really started to explode in the 2010s, following the introduction of sophisticated new food processing technologies. Unlike vegetarian staples such as tofu and seitan – although delicious, they’re very clearly not meat – today’s faux meats are engineered to be nearly indistinguishable from the real thing.

Bite into a Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods burger, and you may feel that you’ve entered uncanny valley. The new iteration of fake meats look, taste, smell, feel and in some cases even ‘bleed’ like the animal products they’re replacing. That means whether you’re looking for plant-based sausages, burgers, mince or chicken nuggets, you can easily find products that would hold their own in a blind taste test. What’s more, they come without the ethical and environmental question marks.

Until recently, though, there has been one conspicuous omission to the list, and that’s been plant-based fish. It is not that plant-based seafood hasn’t existed; it’s just that you might not have been able to find it easily, and many of the products that were available left something to be desired.

In 2021, the plant-based seafood industry generated just $42.1m, according to a report by Allied Market Research (AMR). That’s a drop in the ocean compared to plant-based meat, which AMR has valued at $5.3bn. As the report stated, ‘high prices of plant-based seafood and inability of plant-based seafood to mimic original seafood taste restrict the market growth’.

A sea change in the market

All this said, we could be on the cusp of change. That same report from AMR added that ‘technological advancements and new product launches present new opportunities in the coming years’. It also noted the many reasons people were turning away from real seafood: ‘the depletion of natural ocean resources, rise in global population, increase in pressure on the global food supply chain, surge in the prevalence of zoonotic diseases among humans, rise in vegan population, and increase in awareness regarding animal welfare and animal cruelty’.

In 2021, the documentary Seaspiracy stormed into the Netflix top ten worldwide. It called attention to overfishing with its huge claim that the oceans will be ‘virtually empty’ by 2048; to contaminants like mercury in fish; to the plastic pollution caused by fishing nets; to the waste produced by fish farming and to the slavery that’s rife within the fishing industry. After the documentary aired, it was reported that 42% of viewers were considering cutting fish from their diet.

Whether or not they followed through with that intention, any step away from seafood is good news for the fake fish brands. By 2031, the market is expected to reach a very respectable $1.3bn, representing a compound growth rate of 42.3% a year.

“It’s a matter of being essential,” says Heather Mills, founder of VBites Food, which currently sells two vegan fish products. “Seas are overfished, destroying the seabed. Over 40% of fish the public are eating are swimming in their own faeces in fish farms with zero omega-3. Even though there is omega- 3 in fish, it originally comes from algae, so farmed fish have absolutely nothing unless it’s added into the water. It’s a ridiculous concept.”

Technological leaps

So why exactly has plant-based fish struggled until now and how are manufacturers attempting to fill the gap in the market? To answer these questions, we might start by looking at regular plant-based meat and why its success has proven so hard to emulate.

The most used manufacturing method is extrusion, in which vegetable proteins are ground down into a paste and forced through a tube at high pressure. This technique works well if you’re trying to make a burger patty, nugget or mince – or even a crab cake or fish finger. But because it degrades the texture of the protein, it isn’t suitable for replicating something more fibrous, like a whole cut of fish or meat.

In recent years, new processing technologies have emerged, which create a more meat-like protein structure. These include high moisture extrusion cooking (HMEC) and shear cell technology, in which high pressure is applied to plant-based proteins, breaking down cell walls.

“We have a device with two cylinders, and the inner cylinder moves, creating a simple shear field. If the properties of the material are right, you might get some orientation in the material, and if you manipulate them a bit more you might form fibres,” says Professor Atze Jan van der Goot, a food process engineer at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who has developed a new shear cell technology for use in plantbased meat. That said, it isn’t so easy to create plantbased fish with these techniques. Some are trying – Van der Goot’s former student Birgit Dekkers has started a company, Rival Foods, that uses shear cell technology on a commercial scale. Alongside other ‘high quality plant-based whole cuts’, the team has a tuna steak under development. However, Van der Goot says this will pose additional processing challenges.

“Fish is relatively high in liquid oils that oxide quickly, and it’s a bit more flaky in structure compared to the fibrous appearance of meat,” he says. “That requires a different technique. You see companies using 3D printing for instance.”

Recently, a vegan ‘salmon’ fillet became the first ever 3D-printed food product to hit supermarket shelves. The product from the Austrian start-up Revo Food has been created through a new extrusion technology combined with 3D printing. According to the company, this ‘allows the seamless integration of fats into a fibrous protein matrix – leading to a new generation of authentic seafood alternatives with the typical flakiness and juicy fibres of fish fillets’.

The generated profit made by the plant-based seafood industry in 2021.
Allied Market Research

New School Foods, another start-up but this time from Canada, has developed a proprietary ‘muscle fibre and scaffolding platform’ to create whole-cut, plantbased salmon. The technique involves something called ‘directional freezing’ in which a scaffold is created through thawing a frozen gel. The scaffold is filled with plant proteins, to create a product with the flakiness of real fish. “If you don’t have fibres, it might as well be tofu,” New School Foods’ founder, Chris Bryson, told Food Dive.

The ingredients

In terms of the ingredients, these can vary from one manufacturer to the next. Van der Goot remarks that the basic choice of proteins will generally be the same in faux fish as they are in fake meat. “You might use soy or pea or wheat, which are the most widely available and costeffective. With a fish analogue there might be something else as well as to make it flakey, but the proteins are similar,” he says.

The expected reach of the plantbased seafood market by 2031.
Hack Trends

That ‘something else’ might include functional carbohydrates that influence the structure of the product, like pea starch or konjac powder. (Konjac is a mountainous vegetable that is making something of a name for itself in the fake fish market.) You might also include something like seaweed or algae to replicate that fishy flavour.

To give a few examples, Vegan Zeastar’s smoked ‘Zalmon’ is made from tapioca starch, flax and rapeseed oil, while Nestle’s Vrimp (fake shrimp) is made from seaweed, peas and konjac root. Other brands, like Quorn, are working with fungus-derived mycoprotein combined with other functional ingredients, while Good Catch uses six different legumes flavoured with algal oil.

Heather Mills says VBites have tried a variety of different products, the most popular being a codstyle fish fillet made from konjac and the most realistic being a microalgae-based sushi-style salmon.

“At VBites, we have been making fish alternates since 1995, starting with simple fish fingers and fishcakes, and then getting into the more complicated microalgae salmon,” she says. “It’s a complicated process, but a very clean label product. I would say creating a cod-like flakiness was probably the most difficult part, followed by the flavour and texture.”

Future momentum

With innovation continuing apace, the big question going forward might be cost competitiveness. Especially for ‘whole cuts’, these products are typically expensive – often more so than actual fish or meat. Van der Goot thinks there is scope to mature the market further and produce plant-based fish more efficiently. One easy win, from a price perspective, might be reducing the protein content.

“If these products are made for consumers who eat meat most of the time, maybe they could benefit from a nutritional value that deviates from meat, and that could be a route to making it more cost effective and maybe healthier,” he says.

True enough, research suggests that the growth of the plant-based meat sector (including plant-based fish) is driven by ‘flexitarians’ – people who want to reduce their meat consumption, rather than vegetarians or vegans. This segment is typically quite picky about taste and texture – which food scientists are forever fine-tuning – but they don’t need to worry about their protein intake.

Whether or not consumers plan to cut out fish entirely, there’s evidently a growing demand for alternatives. From a sluggish start, we are now seeing real momentum in the market, with an array of brands promising to do for fake fish what the likes of Impossible Foods have done for fake meat.

“Lots of companies are starting to understand certain techniques as if they’re new, but we have been doing it for decades,” says Mills. “It’s just that we had a limited market in the past because people had not opened their minds to veganism as they are now. Many people love the taste of fish, but not everybody wants the cruelty or environmental disaster that goes with it.”

Astaxanthin: Antioxidants sourced from the sea

Astaxanthin is a naturally occurring dark red carotenoid primarily found in aquatic animals, including salmon, trout, krill, shrimp, crayfish, crustaceans and microalgae. It stands out as one of the most potent lipophilic antioxidants, exhibiting a remarkable antioxidant strength that surpasses vitamin E by a factor of 500. In comparison with other carotenoids like lutein, lycopene and betacarotene, astaxanthin proves to be even more robust.

Extensive research has demonstrated the numerous benefits of natural astaxanthin. Its consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of certain chronic diseases, enhanced cardiovascular health, increased muscle strength, relief from joint pain, anti-inflammatory properties, immune system stimulation and the promotion of healthy skin.

Among their range of plant-based seafoods, one of VBites’ most popular is the a codstyle fish fillet made from konjac. Image Credit: VBites
Heather Mills’ VBites serves up a British classic with an environmental and ethical twist. Image Credit: VBites

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