- Innovators are using tomatoes, eggplant, carrots, pea starch and an Asian root vegetable called konjac to make imitation smoked salmon, tuna, shrimp and sushi products, The Wall Street Journal reported.
- In the past, fake seafood was made with soy and wheat gluten. But these companies are developing manufacturing processes and specialized machinery to better approximate the flakiness, texture and taste consumers are accustomed to experiencing with real tuna, salmon and shrimp products.
- Creators of imitation fish and shellfish hope the new ingredients and technologies they are using will start contributing to the $684-million U.S. market for plant-based meat alternatives, which is currently dominated by faux burgers, chicken and hot dogs.
Coming up with passable plant-based fish and shellfish has been a persistent challenge for food companies, but several startups have been working on replicating the texture, appearance and taste of the real thing. If these companies can perfect the art of fake seafood, it could become the next popular protein alternative.
After some experimentation, these startups' efforts seem to be paying off as more imitation seafood products are hitting the market. For example, Sophie's Kitchen is using pea starch and konjac to turn out canned "toona," as well as fake smoked salmon, lobster and shrimp that it calls "gourmet plant-based seafood."
Ocean Hugger Foods took five years to develop its proprietary method for using Roma tomatoes to make a convincing raw tuna. The result is "Ahimi," which can be used for sushi rolls or as faux fillets for nigiri. According to The Wall Street Journal, the product is being sold in some Whole Foods outlets and is in use in 100 restaurants and cafeterias across the U.S. Next up for the company is an imitation eel product made from eggplant called "Unami" and a faux salmon made from carrots called "Sakimi."
As new products have emerged, big investments have been secured. Good Catch Foods recently raised $8.7 million in investment capital to put into its lineup of fish-free tuna, crab-free cakes and plant-based sliders made from pea, soy, chickpea, lentil, fava and navy beans. There seem to be significant financial rewards out there for believable imitation fish and shellfish, as with other plant-based protein products.
It's likely that this new fake fish could follow in the foot steps of plant-based meat alternatives that have dominated the industry. Sales of plant-based foods jumped 20% in the past year to more than $3.3 billion. According to Euromonitor, retail sales of meat substitutes jumped 16% to $700 million in 2016, and the research firm expects all such products to hit annual U.S. sales of $863 million by 2021. Plant-based fish substitutes only make up a tiny amount of the total — about 1% — but a recent Nielsen study cited by the Journal found sales grew by 19% in the past year to $9.3 million, and could really take off next year.
While manufacturers of fake fish and seafood are trying to boost the nutritional profile of their products, current ingredients don't approximate the real thing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Nutrient Database shows that three ounces of raw yellowfin tuna contains 21 grams of protein, but the same amount of Ocean Hugger's Ahimi fake tuna only contains 1 gram. Adding more protein might work, but not if it changes the delicate balance of fish-like texture and taste.
Still, innovators in the fake fish and shellfish industry have sustainability issues on their side. Consumers have been seeking more sustainable business practices from food companies. Shoppers who give these faux products a try may feel they're doing their part to reduce fishing pressure on the oceans. Some species, such as the Atlantic bluefin, are considered endangered due to overfishing, so companies producing plant-based alternatives could be viewed as mission-based initiatives that consumers will want to support — as long as their products are convincing enough to replace the real deal.