Plant-Based Fish Companies Dive In
Companies creating plant-based fish are ready to shake up a $120 billion market
A few years ago, Chad Sarno couldn’t help but notice a gaping void in the plant-based food market.
In many respects, the market was booming—dairy-free milks were taking over more space in grocery stores and plant-based meat products were gaining market share. And younger generations were reaching for vegan food at rates never seen.
But, Chad wondered, where were the plant-based fish products?
A veteran chef and entrepreneur, Chad has spent his career focusing on high-impact projects. He has launched six restaurants in Europe, taught chef courses in plant-based cuisine, and served as a research and development chef at Whole Foods.
In a recent interview with MFA, Chad said the vast destruction of our oceans and astronomical number of marine animals killed each year motivated him to fill this blank space in the market.
Fishing must certainly be ended. We kill more than a trillion marine animals each year, and the number of fish and other aquatic animals in our oceans dropped 49 percent between 1970 and 2012.
Developing the first product, fish-free tuna, was “a shot in the dark” to him. But working with the right partners helped the venture come to life, said Chad, now the VP of culinary at Good Catch.
In 2017, Chad co-founded Good Catch Foods.
Good Catch isn’t the only company aiming to mimic the taste, texture, and culinary functionality of fish with plants.
Ocean Hugger Foods co-founder James Corwell started exploring a plant-based alternative to ahi tuna after a walk through the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo—a place where dead fish fill warehouses and are auctioned every day to sushi buyers.
“Tuna is the most popular fish used for sushi, a segment that’s growing exponentially as consumers look for quick and healthy meals on the go,” noted Ocean Hugger’s director of marketing, Ashley Bouldin.
But tuna are on the brink of extinction due to fishing. The population of bluefin tuna in the Pacific Ocean has fallen 96 percent.
Four years after James walked through the Tsukiji market, Ocean Hugger’s flagship product—Ahimi, an alternative to raw tuna—was born.
All categories of plant-based food, from dairy-free milk to vegan meats, saw increased growth in the past year, according to research firm Nielsen.
Retail sales of plant-based foods grew 17 percent, far exceeding growth of total U.S. retail food sales, which came in at just 2 percent.
And this boom isn’t isolated to the U.S. coasts or big cities. Refrigerated plant-based meat sales grew fastest in the Pacific and Mountain regions. But frozen plant-based meat sales took the lead in the West South-Central region.
Vegan powerhouse Beyond Meat boasted a 70 percent sales increase. Field Roast and Gardein were not far behind—both enjoyed sales increases of more than 50 percent.
But where’s the veggie fish?
While crab cakes, fish fillets, shrimp, and scallops—all vegan—are available from Sophie’s Kitchen, and plant-based heavyweight Gardein offers a delicious fishless fillet, more innovative products are needed to revolutionize the $120 billion seafood industry. Fortunately, a lot more alternatives are coming, and the potential for these products to capture market share is tremendous.
To replace tuna in sushi, Ocean Hugger turned to an unlikely source: tomatoes.
Tomatoes, Ashley explained, are loaded with glutamic acids, which create the savory flavor of meat. The company’s recipe enhances this savoriness while adding heartiness.
“The result is a naturally meaty texture that looks and tastes like ahi tuna.”
When developing products, Ocean Hugger keeps its focus on whole, highly renewable resources, like fruits and vegetables.
Creativity is not lacking in this burgeoning industry.
New Wave Foods makes sustainable, plant-based shrimp from ocean-sourced and farmed algae. Copper Branch is developing a poke bowl using smoked watermelon. And Terramino Foods uses sustainably grown koji to give its vegan salmon burger a fibrous, meaty texture.
Finless Foods, Wild Type, Seafuture, and Blue Nalu use cell culture techniques to create clean fish—a product that is biologically similar to our fishy friends but without animal slaughter.
Here’s how they do it: The companies take a few marine animal cells and place them in a nutrient mixture that helps them develop into pure muscle tissue. The end product is indistinguishable in taste and texture from its ocean-caught counterpart.
Clean fish products are still a few years out, but they’re headed our way.
Good Catch has zeroed in on legumes as its product base.
The biggest challenge “is to create something that has that dry bite of protein,” Chad said. “A canned tuna product is very different from chicken.”
Chad’s team worked for a year and a half to get the texture just right for its fish-free tuna. They didn’t even dive into the taste of it until the mouthfeel was perfect.
But what about that canned tuna smell? Forget about it. Even large tuna companies are trying to create a scentless tuna. So for Chad, that part has already been accomplished.
Not Just Vegans
With a few years of research and development under their belts, plant-based fish companies are ready to disrupt the market.
“We aren’t trying to turn vegans more vegan,” Chad explained. “We’re trying to get people interested in exploring new proteins and diversifying protein sources.”
“Flexitarians,” he added. “That’s our market.”
Ocean Hugger aspires to make a product so close to fish that consumers don’t discern any difference in flavor.
But plant-based companies are hoping consumers do notice the difference in impact—for both animals and the environment.
Ocean Hugger, Good Catch, Copper Branch, and New Wave all focus on unprocessed, sustainable ingredients that people recognize. They want their products to be cleaner than fish, which can be high in mercury, PCBs, and other harmful chemicals.
Since the U.S. accounts for only about 10 percent of global sushi consumption, these companies are aiming for international expansion.
Good Catch’s product will launch in December at Thrive and Fresh Direct and then at retailers. By February 2019, the product will be available for food manufacturers. New Wave’s shrimp is already sold through Veestro.com in the Shr’mp Jambalaya.
Ocean Hugger’s Ahimi sushi is found at many Whole Foods locations, and the company hopes to launch internationally within the next year.
“To have the biggest impact on the oceans,” said Ashley at Ocean Hugger, “our products need to be everywhere sushi is sold.”