Chef Tsang Chiu King is preparing a small but very important change to his menu: He will be replacing fish in some dishes with a vegetable substitute.
“Its flavor is light and bland and the texture, like grouper, is a bit tougher,” said Mr Tsang, referring to the alternative fish he tested at Ming Court. a Michelin-starred restaurant in Hong Kong. To enhance the flavor, he adds ingredients like dates and goji berries.
“This can give our customers a new experience or surprise, and that helps our business,” he said.
Plant-based products have infiltrated a popular culinary trend in the United States, after years in which vegan burgers and dairy alternatives hovered over the market. That’s partly because many companies are targeting omnivores who seek to reduce the amount of meat they eat, rather than eliminate it altogether.
Now, as sophisticated fish alternatives begin to attract investment and land in restaurants in the United States and beyond, non-fish sector watchers think the industry may be on the verge of collapse. on a significant growth trajectory.
One reason, they say, is that consumers in rich countries are becoming more aware of the seafood industry’s environmental problems, including overfishing and the health risks of some fish. Another thing is that today’s plant-based startups do a better job at determining the approximate fish flavor and texture than those of the past – an important consideration for those who don’t eat fish. vegetarian.
“This isn’t your grandfather’s substitute fish bar,” said Joshua Katz, an analyst at consulting firm McKinsey who has researched the alternative protein industry.
“There are some people who have been looking at alternative hamburgers,” he added. “You can really say, ‘I should do something else,’ and seafood is still a huge market with compelling reasons to do it.”
People who restrict their consumption of animal protein for environmental reasons often stop eating red meat, which requires large amounts of land and water for farming and takes up a lot of methane as a by-product.
But alternative fish advocates say seafood also comes with environmental problems. Unsustainable fishing practices have decimated fisheries in recent decades, a problem for biodiversity, and millions of people depend on the sea for income and food.
“It’s simply a smarter way to prepare seafood,” said Mirte Gosker, acting executive director of Good Food Institute Asia Pacific, a nonprofit advocacy group. “Dots.”
To date, plant-based seafood products in the United States represent only 0.1% of the country’s seafood sales, less than 1.4% of the U.S. meat market due to substitutes. Plant-based meat takes over, according to the Good Food Institute.
But alternative seafood projects around the world received at least $83 million from investors in 2020, compared with $1 million three years earlier, according to institute data. As of this June, 83 companies have produced alternative seafood products around the world, nearly tripling since 2017.
All but 18 of those 83 companies focus on plant-based products. Six others, including a start-up in France make smoked salmon from microalgae, which specializes in proteins derived from fermentation. Dozens of others are growing lab-grown seafood, which is yet to be sold commercially in any country.
Plant based migration
Impossible Foods, a dominant player in the alternative protein industry, has been developing the fish-free project for years. Jessica Appel, a spokeswoman for the company, says they have not yet produced fish-based alternatives.
Other big companies are there. For example, California seafood giant Bumble Bee Foods said last year it was partnering with Good Catch, a Pennsylvania-based seafood company that sells products like fake fish sticks and crab cakes. at Whole Foods and other retailers.
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Several startups are developing alternative fish proteins designed to mimic raw fish. One of them, Kuleana, sells a plant-based version of sushi tuna at markets in Los Angeles and across the country through the Poké Bar restaurant chain.
Jacek Prus, Kuleana’s chief executive officer, said that although so far, products that closely resemble raw fish will need further improvement if the industry is to attract non-vegetarians.
“Basically, we still need to make the product better,” he said. “That’s the biggest challenge: How to recreate the structure in ways that are really, really convincing and oral?”
Looking at Asia
Of the 65 companies currently manufacturing plant-based seafood products, 47 are outside the United States, according to the Good Food Institute. Industry insiders say the Asia Pacific region is a reasonable place to predict significant growth as it already consumes more than two-thirds of the world’s fish, according to United Nations estimates.
Thai Union, one of the world’s largest processors of conventional canned tuna, said in March that it had created OMG Meat, an alternative protein brand that targets “flexible eaters”. active” who want to reduce their carbon footprint. And start-up New Singularity has been selling fermented, algae-based fish substitutes since last year in mainland China.
In Hong Kong, Green Monday has been rolling out fish substitutes at several locations since June. That includes Ming Court, where Mr. Tsang is flavoring fake grouper with goji berries.
Green Monday sells its fake pork brand, OmniPork, at around 40,000 locations around the world, including in the UK, US and most of the Asia Pacific region. David Yeung, the company’s chief executive officer, said that he expected OmniSeafood to be available in most, if not all, of the same market within six months.
Mr. Yeung said his company has designed its imitation fish products to cater to various tastes and cooking methods. For example, Americans prefer to grill or sauté fish, while Chinese people usually boil it in hot pot.
“You can’t tell consumers that you can only fry but you can’t steam, or you can only steam but you can’t put it in a hot pot,” he said. “You can’t do that because to them, fish is fish.”
A future of growing in the lab?
The next frontier is lab-grown seafood, where edible products are grown from real cells in a laboratory. That technology is still far from widespread retail sales and commercialization, though perhaps not as far as many consumers think.
So far, the only company selling farmed protein of any kind is Eat Just, a San Francisco startup whose cultured chicken nuggets were approved for sale in Singapore late last year. The city-state Food Authority said in a brief statement that it has not approved “any other farm-raised meat product.”
The Good Food Institute’s Ms. Gosker said that more farmed protein startups could receive regulatory approval later this year in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration said last October that products containing cultured aquatic cells “could soon enter the U.S. market.”
At least two fish farming companies in California – BlueNalu of San Diego and Wildtype of San Francisco – have announced plans to start selling commercially in the near future. Shiok Meats, a Singapore-based meat and seafood company, also said it plans to “commercialize” next year.
Frea Mehta, a scientist in Germany who specializes in cellular agriculture, says that whatever farmed seafood comes to market will almost certainly be a combination of lab-grown and based technology. on plants. That’s because companies will need to wrap cells in a plant-based “scaffold” to give them structure, at least until the science of cellular agriculture improves.
Mehta, who works for aquaculture company Bluu Biosciences, said one challenge facing the development of lab-grown seafood products is that scientists often don’t know much about biological species. marine animals like mammals.
It doesn’t help, she adds, that animals defined as “seafood” are often so far apart in the organism’s taxonomy. That means it will be a challenge to switch from cell-based fish production to lobsters, a marine invertebrate.
“From a culinary perspective, it makes sense,” she said. “From a biological perspective, it’s not at all because they’re so different.”
Tiffany May and Amy Chang Chien contribution report.