Seaweed-wrapped deep-fried tofu, served in newspaper. Marinated aubergine slices pressed over rice. Chunks of legume protein coated in oil and herbs. These products are intended to mimic various fish dishes – fish and chips, unagi, canned tuna – and they’re all available now.
Faux seafood isn’t entirely new, but products are limited and many of those that have been available so far have been underwhelming and undermarketed. These range from bland tofish and chips served in pubs to rubbery faux shrimp sold in Chinese grocers’ freezer sections, part of the long tradition of imitation meats in Chinese Buddhist cuisine.
These products are ripe for the kind of innovation that has driven and expanded the plant-based meat industry. Yet faux seafood manufacturers seeking to make niche products mainstream face some unique challenges, from cultivating great taste and texture through to scaling costs for ambitious new offerings.
Small market, challenging product
At the moment, faux seafood is a tiny sector in the food supply chain. In the US, the country with the most vegan seafood start-ups, plant-based seafood made up only 1% ($9.5m) of the dollar amount of all retail sales of plant-based meat in 2019. (And plant-based meat, in turn, made up 1% of total meat sales.) Total research and development on alternative seafood has only amounted to $10m–$20m so far.
Right now, there’s no vegan alternative that accurately mimics fish and chips – but some are hoping to change that (Credit: Alamy)
One issue is the technical challenge of replicating flaky, fragile seafood. That means shelf-stable mock tuna has been easier to produce than fillets, and the great majority of plant-based seafood retail sales are of frozen products. The few companies in this space also tend to focus on perfecting a single faux seafood product rather than working on multiple products simultaneously.
Another thorny issue is nutrition. “People typically turn to conventional seafood for health benefits. And so being able to come really close to those benefits is extremely important on the plant-based seafood side,” says Jen Lamy, the sustainable seafood manager for the Good Food Institute (GFI).
Yet that’s been difficult to achieve. Good Catch’s fish-free tuna may come closest, with a legume blend providing protein and algal oil providing a source of omega-3 fatty acids. Perceived health benefit is the main driver of flexitarianism in the UK, and flexitarianism is in turn the main driver of mainstream take-up of faux meat. So nutrition is key if alternative seafood companies want to expand their consumer base for currently niche products.
Rising demand, rising opportunity
Overall, it’s taken consumers a while to begin clamouring for plant-based seafood. Nutrition aside, it’s also because animal welfare concerns about lobsters and farmed fish may not motivate vegetarians and vegans the way pigs and cows do. This is partly cultural and historical: fish aren’t considered meat under Catholicism, for instance, and so their consumption is acceptable on Fridays during Lent.
Yet the UK opened its first pop-up vegan fish and chip shop in 2018, with the vegan menu subsequently being rolled out to all locations of London chippy chain Sutton & Sons. Vegan items now contribute about 20% of their total revenue, reports Sutton & Sons spokesperson Nicholas O’Connor. And the vegan menu continues to expand, from ‘prawn’ cocktail to ‘calamari’ strips and the recently added ‘lobster’ roll.
Shellfish allergy is the most common food allergy in many countries, creating space for shellfish simulacra
In general, alternative seafood poses an enormous opportunity for investors. There’s huge potential for replicating the many types of seafood that end up on dinner plates. As well, shellfish allergy is the most common food allergy in many countries, creating space for shellfish simulacra (after all, lactose-sensitive people were important to the expansion of dairy-free milk).
Some observers believe that the transition from conventional seafood to plant-based versions will happen more rapidly than the shift from dairy milk to dairy-free, because of the high demand for seafood and the dwindling wild supply (and as many large fish species can’t be easily farmed). And even if ethical eaters are less concerned about the welfare of marine animals, awareness of the human rights abuses in global fishing chains and the potential depletion of certain marine species may be compelling.
Some prized fish, like bluefin tuna, are critically endangered. Environmental concerns could help boost demand for faux seafood products (Credit: Alamy)
Scaling the start-ups
The last 18 months have seen a number of important product launches and fundraising rounds; for instance, the company BlueNalu completed a $20m fundraising round in February 2020. A single company or investor could have an outsize impact on the overall market.
So could a government. Singapore, which has been working to move away from its dependence on imported food, has become a leader in alternative seafood. The Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation began collaborating in August 2019 with the Singaporean branch of Sophie’s Kitchen, a US plant-based seafood company, on fermenting microalgae to produce a protein substitute.
And Singapore’s Shiok Meats, which is working on cell-based crustacean products, could well become the first cell-based seafood company to enter the market. Sandhya Sriram, the CEO of Shiok Meats, explains that the company has received grants, tax rebates and regulatory assistance from the Singaporean government thus far, and is hoping to obtain additional funding and manufacturing support in the future.
Cell-based meat is created from the cells of donor animals. Here shrimp stem cells are being grown in a pink-coloured nutritional solution (Credit: Shiok Meats)
Cell-based meat, sometimes called lab-grown meat or clean meat, has identical cellular structure to animal meat but doesn’t require slaughter. Instead cells from initial “donor animals” are grown in a bioreactor. The cell lines can continue to be used over and over, creating great potential to reduce animal suffering – although for the moment the process is energy-intensive and divisive.
Sriram acknowledges that not all vegetarians and vegans will be on board with this kind of seafood of the future. “At the end of the day, cell-based meats are still very much meats to the biological and cellular level – so if you do not eat meat, for example, for religious reasons, cell-based meats may not suit you. But for me as a vegetarian, for ethical reasons, I can consume cell-based meats without any guilt.”
It will take some time to get there, in any case. A single dumpling made with Shiok shrimp would cost about S$150 ($107, or £85). Sriram says that the company is still at the “R&D scale” but has plans to grow operations and reduce costs. In general, cell-based and plant-based meats are still more expensive than the conventional versions; as with Shiok, this is primarily an issue of a smaller scale.
Of course, Covid-19 has altered everything. The traditional meat supply has been disrupted by the spread of infection in crowded processing plants and fishing boats. (Mock meat products are easier to produce in socially distanced conditions.)
One result is that seafood consumption is down in some countries. Overall, demand for plant-based meats has risen since the start of lockdown. Some 23% of surveyed US consumers say they’ve been eating more plant-based meals due to Covid-19 (about twice as many as those eating more meat). The figure is highest among 18-24-year-olds. During the lockdown in the US, both animal-based and plant-based meats have experienced surges in sales growth, but the percentage gains have been much higher for the alternative meats. “Plant-based meat has grown a lot relative to this period last year,” says Lamy.
But it’s hard to predict the long-term effects of the pandemic on innovative seafood companies, which are prone to excessive exuberance about how soon they can reach the market or how quickly they can spread. For one thing, consumers are likely to be very price sensitive, so the higher prices of seafood alternatives may be more of a stumbling block than usual.
Yet there’s more capital and technology flowing into this area than ever before, and Lamy is particularly enthusiastic about partnerships between established seafood companies like Bumble Bee (famous for canned tuna) and Good Catch (getting more famous for faux tuna). “There’s room for so many more entrants in this market,” she emphasises. “It’s still early days.”