Since the Smart Protein project aims to develop sustainable food for the future, it makes sense that we explore plant-based fish, especially given the highly unsustainable nature of the global fishing industry. In preparing this article, we consulted with several Smart Protein partners, including the Good Food Institute, ProVeg International, Applied Research Organization Fraunhofer, and seafood companies Soguima and Thai Union.
As the herbal market continues to grow at an accelerated rate, it may seem that alternatives to fish and seafood have been left behind. While this is true to some extent, it also means that the alternative fish sub-sector represents a key opportunity in the alternative food sector, as there is plenty of space for new products to enter the market and considerable room for growth. And, given the general enthusiasm for the plant space on the part of investors and consumers, it seems likely that plant-based fish is set to catch up with its meat and dairy counterparts in the next few years. .
Looking at the alternative seafood sector on a global scale, it is clear that the industry is starting to grow at an accelerated rate, especially in terms of investment, with global investment in the sector increasing from a quarter of million US dollars in 2015 to 100 million dollars. in 2021. In Germany, where the plant-based sector is particularly developed, data from Nielsen for the two-year period ending October 2020 shows that plant-based fish have the highest growth rate of any category. ‘plant-based foods, with a growth of 623% over the two years. While this rapid growth is in part due to the low initial value of the sector, the rapid expansion of sales from € 261k in 2018 to € 1.9m in 2020 is not to be despised and gives an idea of the growth potential. future.
However, the selection of existing products is still very limited, consisting mainly of fish fingers and crumbled fish burgers. The development and launch of herbal analogues of fish fillets and other popular fishery products is needed to meet unmet market demand. According to Kai-Brit Bechtold, Principal Scientist at ProVeg, “Consumer research suggests that there is a strong need to improve the ingredients and prices of these products.
All of this suggests that plant-based fish present a potentially lucrative business opportunity for those who can rise to the challenge of developing compelling fish analogues.
What do consumers want from plant-based fishery products?
The Consumer Advice Center in Hesse, Germany recently conducted a survey exploring the consumption habits of 80 vegan and vegetarian consumers compared to 20 plant-based seafood. The results revealed the following facts about the consumer’s experience of plant-based fish:
- A recognizable fishy flavor is crucial, as is a chewing experience similar to conventional fish products.
- Currently, most products do not meet the needs of consumers – they are either overprocessed or contain too many additives, while also missing key components commonly found in fish, such as omega-3 fatty acids, iodine and vitamin B12. Although the products contain protein, the ratio is usually not as high as with conventional fish.
- In addition, the price of fish of plant origin is too high, especially for products that consumers do not find sufficiently satisfactory. For example, breaded fish substitute sticks cost 60% more than conventional fish sticks.
Of the 20 products tested, about two-thirds used soybeans and / or highly processed grains (such as rehydrated wheat protein) as protein sources. Half of the products used seaweed and / or seaweed to impart a fishy flavor, while some products were enriched with additional flavors. Almost all of the products tested lacked nutrients typical of fish, such as omega-3 fatty acids, iodine and vitamin B12.
There is clearly a lot of room for improvement in this category, especially in terms of ingredients and price. At the same time, there is a lot of development in the sector. The Smart Protein project, along with its partners, is working hard to address these challenges.
Develop better plant-based fishery products
Emanuel Guimarães is COO of Portuguese seafood company Soguima and an active partner in the Smart Protein project. He had some useful ideas on what is needed to put plant-based fish on par with conventional products.
Guimarães points out that it is likely that one of the reasons seafood analogues have fallen behind in terms of market offerings is that fish and seafood have unique sensory characteristics. Generally speaking, these characteristics are the result of a combination of factors, ranging from volatile chemicals to the unique muscle structure of the fish. But, says Guimarães, “While the development and launch of more precise seafood alternatives presents a challenge in terms of food technology, it also presents an attractive opportunity – one that will be very profitable for companies that fall for it. the alt fish. “
One of the main challenges is to mask the flavors and colors of the basic herbal ingredients, while still getting the right sensory characteristics. Yet at the same time, consumers are increasingly demanding cleaner labels and less processed foods. The challenge is to disguise the flavors and colors without using unpopular additives.
Color is the key to consumer buy-in when it comes to alternative fish. Products that differ significantly in color from the product they are trying to replace will never convince consumers. Since synthetic coloring already faces opposition from consumers and regulators, one strategy is to try to mimic seafood which naturally has recognizable colors and is easy to achieve. Examples of fish with easily reproducible color palettes include tuna, salmon, fish roe, and cephalopods such as squid or octopus.
In terms of masking or minimizing unpleasant flavors, there are a host of proven techniques that are used in both conventional fish and other foods. These include processing methods such as marinating, salting, fermenting and smoking, all of which can be used to enhance and complement the flavor and texture of seafood analogues. It should be mentioned that if these traditional methods are sometimes modified or supplemented by additives or modern synthetic processes, in terms of consumer appeal simpler is always better – especially in the European market, where levels of consumer awareness and food regulation are particularly high.
The role of extrusion in the development of vegetable fish
As with beef and poultry analogues, most plant-based fish products are likely to be produced using an extrusion process, in which plant proteins are mixed with water, then mixed and heated, before being extruded in their final form. The extrusion process involves many variables that can affect the texture, mouth feel, and appearance of the finished product. These include temperature profile, screw design and speed, mass flow, die shape, and moisture content, all of which can be adjusted separately to determine a particular product texture.
Creating compelling products requires a deep understanding and experience of the multiple interactions between raw materials and the extrusion process. With adjustments to the process, a wide variety of shapes and textures can be generated, from soft and juicy to dense and rich in gum.
While there is a great deal of expertise around traditional extrusion inputs such as soybeans, knowledge about the material behavior of newer ingredients must be generated from scratch, especially when new ingredients are blended with a other in a mixture of several components.
While there are challenges, extrusion allows the processing of any plant-based raw material into a variety of fish and seafood substitutes, from soft fish steaks to dense tuna shreds into passing through the shrimp. Adjusting the variables in the extrusion process allows for the creation of herbal versions of a wide range of conventional seafood.
Finally, from a nutritional standpoint, the gold standard for plant-based fish products should be a complete replacement for all of the essential amino acids and vitamins that are naturally found in fish products. Since not all plant protein contains all essential amino acids, a suitable approach to design an optimal amino acid profile for humans may be to combine different sources of plant protein and process them as mixtures instead. only unique ingredients.
A promising future for the sector
Despite the challenges facing the sector and its slow initial growth relative to other protein analogues, plant-based seafood is expected to skyrocket in the coming years, especially as concerns about sustainability issues for conventional seafood continue to grow. The Smart Protein project, in collaboration with its partners, is committed to accelerating this growth by providing research and support where possible. If you have any questions or would like to invest or develop plant-based seafood, please contact Paloma Nosten.
 Good Food Institute 2021: State of the Industry Report. Alternative seafood. January 2020 – June 2021. Available at: https://gfi.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/2021-Seafood-State-of-the-Industry.pdf [Accessed: 10.09.2021]
(Invested capital includes accelerator and incubator funding, angel funding, seed funding, equity and product crowdfunding, early stage venture capital, late stage venture capital , private equity growth / expansion, capitalization, business, joint venture, convertible debt, and general debt transactions completed. Note: Data has not been reviewed by analysts at PitchBook.)