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Ride the next wave of alternative protein

Plant-based fish and seafood products will be the next big topic for alternative protein. Here Sylvain Jouet examines the opportunities and challenges for the manufacturers who develop these products.
vegetable seafood Could we see plant-based seafood on menus and shelves anytime soon?

Plant innovation is one of the largest and most exciting growth areas in the food industry today. While meat substitutes are the fastest growing sub-category in this market (up 152 percent in 2019), fish and shellfish alternatives are now ready for dynamic growth. Investments in alternative seafood startups have been brisk, and new companies and products have started to expand the market.

A perfect storm

Consumer interest in these products is driven by the same health, ethical and environmental concerns as meat substitutes, but these have specific implications for the fish and shellfish industries.

Consumers are concerned about overfishing, marine pollution and the environmental impact of the fishing industry on biodiversity. They are also increasingly concerned about the health effects of microplastic contamination in fish and crustaceans, as well as the growing mercury levels of some fish species.

Against the backdrop of increasing global demand and prices, this creates the perfect storm before which fish and shellfish substitutes are ideally positioned to establish themselves as an affordable, healthier, and more sustainable option.

For manufacturers preparing to take the plunge, plant-based seafood offers great opportunities and, of course, their own complex challenges. As consumer interest grows, the look, feel, nutritional content and, most importantly, taste must all be right for these products to become an integral part of their diet.

Taste still determines consumer preference

While ethical, health or environmental concerns are important, ultimately the decisive factor for consumers remains the taste of the product. If it doesn’t taste good, the consumer is unlikely to buy the product again.

There are four key areas to consider when developing the taste for these products. The first is to build the flavor and body of the basic fish flavor. Once this is developed, one of the toughest areas for herbal products is masking off notes from the protein base, especially when a mixture of proteins is used. For example, in products that use textured vegetable protein based on soy or pea proteins, unpleasant secondary notes associated with the protein base have to be overcome.

The next step is to create the flavor profile for an authentic taste that reflects certain species characteristics and build all of the flavors against the target. Finally, culinary cooking features like smoked, grilled, canned, boiled or raw can be added.

Fish and seafood substitutes work well in prepared dishes. Consumers are excited about new taste experiences and there is a significant opportunity to develop dishes inspired by global flavors and spice blends from the many cuisines around the world that focus on fish and vegetable dishes.

Dishes that are inspired by Asian palettes, such as teriyaki, red and green curry, soy sauce and sweet and sour, as well as spicy South American-inspired ingredients such as chipotle, jaleno and mixtures such as pico de gallo are particularly popular at the moment.

Pico de Gallo

Pico de Gallo or Salsa Fresca has been identified as a potential taste trend

Create an authentic dining experience

The right eating experience is an essential part of creating a successful product. Choosing the right protein base is the first stage in this process and will depend on various factors such as nutritional content, functionality, texture, taste, sourcing and cost.

With its high protein content, soy is the first choice for manufacturers of fish and seafood substitutes. Its flexibility and low cost make it a very attractive source, but it is also an allergen, which means that it is not suitable for all consumers. With a profile similar to soy, pea is a popular allergen-free alternative, especially for higher quality products.

Many manufacturers use soy or peas as the primary base for wheat gluten sources to balance the mix. Other popular plant-based proteins that are usually used in combination include oats, chickpeas, lentils, fava and white beans, sunflower, and flax seeds.

As a substitute for shellfish, manufacturers use algae, algae or starches such as konjac powder as a base. These closely mimic the texture of real prawns and can be applied to alternatives to lobster, crab, prawn, and calamari. However, the main disadvantage of these bases is their low protein content. Therefore, additional protein must be added to increase their nutritional levels.

Getting the right mouthfeel is often difficult, but can be achieved by incorporating a mixture of active ingredients – gels, protein isolates, and starches – into the protein base during production. The desired mouthfeel determines which ingredients are needed, the balance of which requires an experienced food scientist and a lot of practical application knowledge. All components must work synergistically and be functionalized at the right time with the right process or the right amount of water.

Nice to look at

Visual peeling is of enormous importance in food, and achieving suitable color solutions for fish substitutes varies in difficulty depending on the subcategory. In the case of white fish, it is necessary to lighten the vegetable protein base, which is beige to yellow depending on the formulation. Salmon and crustaceans need orange to pink / red colors with good process stability. With tuna, manufacturers try to repeat the color change that occurs during cooking when fresh tuna changes from a deep red color to brown.

This color change can be a real challenge due to the complexity of the food matrices in these products. It is possible to achieve the desired boil transition effect, but it is complex and requires bespoke solutions.

Since the environment and health are the main drivers for the consumer, natural and vegetarian colors are a must and vegan colors are highly desirable.

Future look

Alternative fish and seafood products are seeing some of the most interesting innovations in the vegetable space. Algae proteins developed from algae or algae are currently gaining great interest as the protein base for these products.

This novel protein, grown in water through photosynthesis, has a complementary flavor profile for seafood, making it an attractive source of protein for manufacturers and a logical, easy-to-understand ingredient for consumers. While there are still challenges to successful large-scale production, especially scale-up costs, this is likely to be a future growth area for these products.

Research into cell cultures and laboratory-grown products is also expected to be fertile ground for innovation and the development of new technologies in this area, especially since replicating the texture of whole muscle products is even more of a challenge for fish alternatives than for meat substitutes.

Related topics

Analysis, Flavors and Colors, Food and Beverage, Health and Nutrition, Ingredients, New Product Development (NPD), Product Development, Proteins and Alternative Proteins, Research and Development, Sustainability, Technology and Innovation