The next dynamic growth area in the ‘Alternative Protein’ area is expected to be in plant-based seafood and fish products. The industry has seen a significant increase in investment in this area as the market has started to expand.
Consumers are encountering the same concerns, relating to the Fish and Shellfish industry, as they do about the Meat industry. They are concerned about the environment with overfishing, marine pollution and the impact on biodiversity.
There is also increasing concern about the health implications of microplastic contamination being found in fish and crustaceans. Not to mention growing levels of mercury being found in some sealife.
This is great timing for this area of the industry, where there is rising demand globally and subsequently price rises too, for them to benefit from providing a more sustainable, healthier and more competively priced alternative fish option.
The real issue for manufacturers preparing to head down this route is the challenges of making these plant-based seafood and fish products not only a regular part of the consumers’ diet but also to look, feel and taste right. Basically if it doesn’t taste right the consumer is unlikely to buy again.
The four key areas for flavour development have to be:
- Building the taste and body of the basic fish flavour.
- Masking any ‘off notes’ caused by the protein base i.e. texturised vegetables, soy or bean proteins.
- Creating a flavour profile for an authentic taste to reflect specific species.
- Finally, adding culinary cooking eg smoked, grilled, boiled, canned, raw.
Another area to bear in mind is that these fish and seafood plant-based substitutes lend themselves well to pre-prepared dishes. This will give an opportunity to expand global flavours and spice blends from cuisines around the world.
Asian inspired meals are particularly popular at the moment such as red or green curry, teriyaki, soy sauce, sweet & sour as well as chipotle, jalapeno – the South American-inspirations.
Soy tends to be first choice for manufacturers with its high protein content – it is also an allergen. An alternative is Pea which is popular and allergen-free – particularly good for high-quality products. Whilst Soy or Pea tend to the primary base for mixes other popular proteins that can be used include oats, chickpea, lentils, fava and navy beans, sunflower and flaxseed.
Shellfish substitutes can be algae, starches such as konjac power or seaweed. These mimic the texture of shrimp and can be applied to lobster, crab, calamari or prawn alternatives. The main problem with these bases is their low protein level so additional protein needs to be added to boost nutritional content.
To achieve the right feel for the ‘mouth’ – gels, starches and protein isolates can be mixed with the protein base but this will need the knowledge of a food scientist with lots of hands-on experience to achieve the correct ‘feel’ for the seafish alternative.
The next stage must be to make the food look visually appealing by adding colour solutions eg whiten the base mixture for white fish, orange to create pink/red colours for salmon/crustaceans. A challenge will be to achieve the change from red to brown of Tuna during cooking. Keeping in mind the environment, consumers will expect and drive the use of natural, vegetarian and vegan colourings.
So as this exciting area of fish alternatives grows, research will also keep pace with development of cell culture and lab-grown products. The challenge to achieve texture of whole muscle products for fish alternatives is even greater than that faced by those creating meat substitutes.