A new wave of plant-based food makers is focused on fish

News that Burger King and Red Robin are the latest restaurant chains to put Impossible burgers on the menu has kept stories about the rise of plant-based meat alternatives in the spotlight recently.

But there’s also a group of startups and some more established brands that are focused on creating vegan alternatives to popular seafood products for retail, restaurant and foodservice channels.

Seafood-style products accounted for only about 1.4% of total plant-based meat sales last year, according to data compiled by the Good Food Institute, but that proportion could grow as a wave of new products land on the market and consumers learn more about the issues associated with traditional seafood.

Around the world, fish consumption has grown twice as fast as the population annually for nearly 50 years, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

That demand takes an increasing toll on supply, and there’s a growing awareness of the mercury, PCBs and other contaminants that often come with wild caught fish. Farmed fish can come with other problems related to confinement and antibiotic use, and both methods of catching fish raise serious sustainability questions.

Strong demand and dwindling supplies of tuna have made that fish a popular one for plant-based companies to replicate. In the US, 45% of consumers buy tuna often, compared to 30% for raw shrimp and 29% for salmon, according to a report by the Food Marketing Institute.

Brothers Chad and Derek Sarno and three other partners created Good Catch to develop plant-based seafood alternatives, starting with tuna. The vegan chefs worked with plant-based proteins from legumes including peas and soybeans to create a product that replicates the texture and taste of tuna without the smell that can be a turn off. The product also includes algal oil, which contains the omega-3 fatty acids that make many consumers seek out tuna.

The first three flavors of the shelf-stable tuna went on sale in February on grocery subscription service Thrive Market and at select Whole Foods Market stores.

“Our greatest challenge, because it is a white space, is that people just need to try it,” Chad Sarno said in a February interview. “We will have a whole sampling program with Whole Foods. When people try it at trade shows, even people who don’t like tuna like this product.”

Sophie’s Kitchen founder Eugene Wang began developing plant-based seafood products made with an Asian root vegetable called konjac about a decade ago, after his young daughter Sophie had a severe allergic reaction from accidentally eating some shrimp.

He launched the company in 2010 and today it sells a line of frozen plant-based fish filets, shrimp, crab and salmon, along with its tuna product called VeganToona.

Both VeganToona and Good Catch’s first products are sold alongside the canned tuna fish at the grocery store. Good Catch is also developing a line of frozen products, and both companies also have ambitions of growing into foodservice.

Sophie’s Kitchen will ramp up its efforts with the help of PepsiCo. The company was one of 10 chosen late last year to participate in PepsiCo’s Nutrition Greenhouse project, which will provide funding and mentorship to help the startups grow in particular areas. Wang plans to use the experience to build a presence in foodservice channels.

Good Catch was created by chefs and the company has tested the product in a myriad of recipes, Chad Sarno said. He anticipates that eventually about half the company’s sales will come from foodservice channels.

Additionally, Good Catch has been hearing from food manufacturers interested in sourcing plant-based tuna for use in their own prepared meals, Sarno said.

A mix of other established brands and startups are also innovating in the plant-based seafood category in both retail and foodservice, including:

  • Gardein, which makes Fishless Filets and Crabless Cakes
  • Quorn, which has created Vegan Fishless Sticks
  • Ocean Hugger Foods, which makes its Ahimi sushi product from tomatoes
  • New Wave Foods, which has created shrimp made from algae and plant proteins

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