Burgers, chicken and hot dogs dominate the fast-growing, $684-million market for plant-based meat alternatives. Fish? Not so much.
That is starting to change as upstart companies invest in new ingredients, machinery and technologies that promise to make imitation tuna, salmon and shrimp smell, taste and appear more…fishy.
Heather Collins, a Denver, marketing consultant, was surprised by the vegan “smoked salmon” from Sophie’s Kitchen that she purchased a few months ago for a family gathering that included a vegetarian cousin.
“It had the smoked flavor, and it even had that slimy texture to it,” she says. The salmon never made it to the family dinner, Ms. Collins says. She ate it all herself.
Texture is the Holy Grail when it comes to finding plant-based alternatives that mimic meat, and fish has proved particularly difficult to get right.
Most efforts at faking seafood in the past used soy or wheat gluten, investors and food analysts say. Textural subtleties, such as the flakiness of the meat or the snap of shrimp, were often absent.
“The manufacturing technologies were not there,” says Dan Altschuler Malek, senior venture partner at New Crop Capital, which has investments in 30 animal-protein replacement companies, including some focused on fish.
In 2013, Ocean Hugger Foods co-founder and chef James Corwell decided to explore the possibility of using Roma tomatoes in place of raw tuna. Tomatoes, he says, contain glutamic acid, an amino acid that is responsible for savory flavors found in meat.
Getting tomatoes to look and taste as close as possible to tuna took dozens of tweaks over five years—from the variety of tomato used to the consistency of the marinade, Mr. Benzaquen says.
The result, Ahimi, launched last year. Its meaty texture stems from a proprietary manufacturing process—a “trade secret,” Mr. Benzaquen says—that enhances the savory quality of the tomato with five ingredients, including soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil.
The product, sold to chefs for use in raw-fish dishes like sushi, is now in 100 restaurants and cafeterias, including 51 Whole Foods stores across the U.S. It comes in stacks of frozen, marinated, half-tomato “fillets” that can be cut similarly to raw tuna, says Mr. Benzaquen.
Katie Ratz, a 28-year-old high-school teacher in Vancouver, British Columbia, who gave up fish two years ago, recently tried it at a restaurant that serves the cubed imitation meat raw in “poke” dishes.
“The fleshy texture was dead-on,” she says.
Ocean Hugger is now working on an eggplant-based eel called Unami that will launch next month. In early 2019, Sakimi, a carrot-based salmon, will be introduced.
Sophie’s Kitchen uses konjac, a fibrous Asian root vegetable with a rubbery texture, to make its smoked salmon and more popular faux canned tuna, called Toona. When combined with pea starch, konjac can be turned into different kinds of seafood imitations, from shellfish to fish fillets, says chief executive Eugene Wang. Pea protein is dialed up or down for varying degrees of textural density.
Technology is aiding companies’ mission. Good Catch, co-founded in 2016 with New Crop Capital, is building a manufacturing facility in Heath, Ohio, with specialized, high-moisture extrusion machines similar to those used for canned cat food, says co-founder Eric Schnell. Its 3.3-ounce packages of tuna-like products will enter the market early next year.
Even with the new advances, companies face an upstream swim. Many consumers don’t have a problem with eating fish, which gets rave reviews from doctors and nutritionists for being relatively low in fat while loaded with nutrients, including vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids.
“Fish has traditionally been one of the last things that people would give up,” says Seth Tibbott, founder of Tofurky, who says he is watching the fake-fish space closely.
Many people who squirm at the idea of eating chicken or beef, don’t have the same problem with fish, Mr. Tibbott says. “Farm animals have legs and seem more like us,” he says.
Still, those in the fake-fish business say the potential market for fish alternatives has been underestimated, as vegetarian foods become more mainstream and consumers increasingly consider commercial fishing practices and mercury levels found in fish.
When out in a group at a restaurant, one vegetarian can affect the choices of a whole table, says Mr. Benzaquen, of Ocean Hugger. “That person is going to dictate what the entire group orders.” If a restaurant doesn’t provide exciting alternative options, he says, they may lose tables.
Though strict vegetarians account for just 3% of the population, 37% of people say they order vegetarian meals at restaurants at least some of the time, according to a 2016 online survey of 2,015 adults conducted by Harris Poll for the nonprofit Vegetarian Resource Group.
Even major meat companies are hedging their bets and making investments in plant-based meat. Tyson Foods now owns slightly more than 5% of Beyond Meat, and Maple Leaf Foods last year acquired plant-protein companies including Lightlife Foods and Field Roast Grain Meat Co.
And while sales of plant-based fish substitutes are minuscule—amounting to about 1% of the entire meat-substitutes category—they grew 19% to $9.3 million in the past year, according to a recent Nielsen study conducted for the Good Food Institute, a Washington nonprofit that advocates for alternatives to conventional animal agriculture.
That number is expected to skyrocket next year, says the institute’s senior marketing manager Caroline Bushnell, with the growing popularity of plant-based foods and new entrants in the category.
Fake-seafood makers hope they can have the same impact in frozen-foods sections and canned-tuna aisles as plant-based milks have had in dairy cases. Plant-based milks are now 13% of total milk sales, according to the Nielsen study.
“It seemed like nobody was tackling it,” says Dominique Barnes, chief executive of New Wave Foods, which plans to introduce plant-based shrimp to restaurants and food-service clients in 2019.
But substituting animal proteins for imitation versions can come with nutritional trade-offs, companies say.
Three-ounces of raw yellowfin tuna contain 21 grams of protein, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database. A 3-ounce serving of Ocean Hugger’s Ahimi contains 1 gram of protein.
“The vast majority of Americans get more protein than they need,” says Mr. Benzaquen.
Sophie’s Kitchen has tried adding omega-3 oils to its product, using everything from flax to chia, to get a more similar nutritional profile to fish. But the taste was medicine-y, says Mr. Wang, the CEO. The company is continuing to look at possibly adding omega-3 from algae.
“The product was designed to be a textural replacement,” says Mr. Wang. “We hope down the road it can be a nutritional replacement, too.”
Write to Anne Marie Chaker at email@example.com