3D-printed fish offers puzzles and promises

Some ambitious startups claim they’re ready to print convincing seafood analogues by the ton, which could help meet the world’s immense appetite for seafood — and need for protein sources.

Nick Collias, Contributing writer

June 5, 2024

4 Min Read
3D-printed fish.

At a Glance

  • The first 3D-printed salmon fillet reportedly launched in September 2023 and is now carried in Austrian grocery stores.
  • Companies are using 3D printing to create plant-based fish that mimics the texture, flavor and even nutrition of fish.
  • Most 3D-printed fish is plant-based, but one company claimed it can customize a blend of plant based and cultivated fish.

After earning his biotechnology doctorate focused on cultured meat research in 2020, Robin Simsa saw plenty of his colleagues begin working for startups creating plant-based meat. No one, it seemed, was focusing on fish. And the reason was no secret. 

That delicate texture that flakes with the touch of a fork. The rich, buttery flavor with just a touch of pungency. The unique combination of protein and healthy fats. Fish simply isn’t like other meats — and re-creating it convincingly presents uniquely difficult challenges. 

Another big problem? Scale. Global consumers eat around 9 billion pounds of shrimp per year, and hundreds of millions of pounds of salmon — and seafood consumption is expected to continue rising for at least the next decade. A truly disruptive plant-based company must be able to produce “fish” as a commodity, not just a high-end delicacy. 

A tiny group of global startups, including Simsa’s Revo Foods, are convinced that 3D printing is uniquely equipped to solve plant-based fish’s challenges. Here’s how they’re attempting to do it. 

Texture: Fat integrated into muscle 

Revo Foods’ first totally 3D-printed creation — which Simsa maintained is also the first 3D-printed food item available in supermarkets, period — is a salmon-style fillet made with mycoprotein. It expands and flakes when cooked, and otherwise behaves like a salmon fillet should. Simsa said that’s only possible because of very recent developments in 3D printing technology. 

“A fillet has a fat component and a protein component, and it’s not in a random distribution,” he explained. “It’s very aligned within the product. Before, this was not really possible — like, they were separated; but with this new technology, you really integrate them with each other. Because what this alignment allows you to do is really separate something that flakes when you press it with a fork.” 

Another 3D-printed meat and fish startup, Israel-based Steakholder Foods, keeps a foot (or fin) in the world of actual animal flesh to help crack the texture code. Previously, the company released a hybrid 3D-printed/cultivated steak, and collaborated with the cultivated fish specialists at Umami Foods to integrate grouper cells into a whitefish fillet. 

Tzahi Segev, digital marketing manager at Steakholder Foods, told Food & Beverage Insider that Steakholder’s 3D printing technology will soon allow clients to customize the balance between cultivated and plant-based ingredients. For now, the brand only offers plant-based versions of its grouper, eel and shrimp analogues, produced using a gel-based printing method. 

Omega-3s and flavor: Using the food fish eat 

Looking at the components of Revo Foods’ The Filet reveals that mycoprotein, water and a handful of plant-based ingredients are responsible for the texture and color. So where does the fish flavor come from? And what about the 700 mg of omega-3s? 

Both come from Schizochytrium sp., a microalgae rich in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) omega-3 fatty acids. Consumers who eat farm-raised Atlantic salmon likely already consume this microalgae, which studies have shown can effectively replace fish oil in juvenile salmon’s diets. 

“What many people don’t know is fish do not produce omega-3s,” Simsa stated. “Fish get omega-3s because they eat microalgae. This technology allows us to cut the fish out of the process and go directly to the microalgae oil.” 

Scale: Print by the ton 

Global Market Insights estimated that the plant-based fish market in the U.S. was worth more than $800 million in 2022 — and that the high costs of manufacturing will limit growth over the decade to come. 

Revo and Steakholder contend 3D printing is ready to tackle that preconception now. Steakholder Foods claimed its printing production capacity is 320 kg per hour. And after launching its salmon fillet last fall, Revo is currently printing “many tens of thousands” of fillets monthly and selling them in Austrian stores and online. 

But the company is also scheduled to open what Simsa referred to as “the largest industrial production system for any type of 3D printing anywhere in the world” in Vienna by August. Once launched, he said the new facility will be able to provide “many tons of product per month to supermarkets in Europe,” which remain the largest market for salmon. 

Both brands are also in discussions with companies from other parts of the food industry — from alternative meats to baking — to utilize their 3D printing technology. Because the textural, flavor and scaling lessons from creating fish have applications far beyond seafood. 

About the Author(s)

Nick Collias

Contributing writer

Nick Collias is a writer and editor with over a decade of experience working in the health and fitness industry. From 2016 to 2021, he was the host of the Bodybuilding.com Podcast, interviewing elite athletes and training thought-leaders on a wide range of exercise, nutrition and lifestyle topics. Additionally, he has worked for the last 20 years as a longform print and online journalist, as well as a book author, ghostwriter and editor. 

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