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Unlocking the challenges of producing plant-based seafood

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The process of creating a plant-based alternative that mimics the gold standard of traditional seafood is not one-dimensional. It’s essential to replicate the texture, flavor, aroma and color of the original protein throughout the cooking process as well as in the final product.

Food & Beverage Insider’s plant-based digital magazine debuts soon, but we wanted to offer you a sneak-preview treat with this new report on plant-based seafood and its biggest challenges as it evolves. It also serves as a great primer to get you ready for the upcoming Plant-Based Food Technology and Future Growth educational session at SupplySide West. The event occurs Oct. 31-Nov. 4 at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. 

Plant-based seafoods may be a nascent category, but reasons abound as to why they have growth potential. The perceived healthfulness of plant-based foods is one driver of purchase, but today’s consumers are also concerned about the environment. 

Sustainability issues and climate risk are top of mind. According to “2021 Industry Update: Alternative seafood” by the Good Food Institute, more than 90% of wild fisheries are classified as overfished or harvested at maximum capacity. The report noted: “Bottom trawling, a method of industrial fishing responsible for a quarter of all wild-caught seafood today, releases 1.5 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.” 

The origins of most seafood may also give consumers pause. NOAA Fisheries (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) estimated that between 70% and 85% of seafood consumed in the United States is imported.  While some seafood comes from Canada and Ecuador, large numbers of imports come from China, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. Even fish that is caught by U.S. fishermen is often exported overseas for processing, and then reimported to the United States. 

It follows that as consumers embrace a wide range of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, they are dipping their fingers into ocean-free varieties. ADM sees the opportunity. 

“Our research (ADM Outside Voice, “Global Protein Occasion Study,” October 2021) shows that plant-based fish and seafood collectively make up 11% of global plant-based meat occasion types among different species and meat,” said Jacquelyn Schuh, global marketing director, protein nutrition solutions, ADM. “On top of that, 54% of U.S. plant protein consumers have tried plant-based fish, and 24% have tried plant-based shellfish” (ADM Outside Voice, “Global Plant Protein Consumer Discovery Report,” August 2020). 

“And among global consumers who haven’t yet tried plant-based shellfish, U.S. respondents expressed the most interest in trying shellfish alternatives,” she continued. “Encouraging more consumers to try plant-based seafood options will take quality ingredients coupled with technical expertise to create the nuanced flavors and textures associated with fish and shellfish.” 

A variety of fish and seafood analogues are launching, from whole shrimp to caviar to salmon and tuna fillets. But the process of creating a plant-based alternative that mimics the gold standard of traditional seafood is not one-dimensional. The same challenges exist as in creating meat alternatives: replicating the texture, flavor, aroma and color of the original protein throughout the cooking process as well as in the final product. 

The developer must first consider the protein source. It should have a neutral flavor and light color. Melissa Machen, senior technical services manager, Cargill, recommended using textured wheat protein, partly because of its white color. 

“It also delivers a shredded appearance, so when it’s formed together in a patty, the result is a flaky texture similar to traditional fish products,” she said. “Uncolored textured soy protein is another option for plant-based fish alternatives. On the hydrocolloid side, carrageenan works well in this space, with gel-forming properties like what you see in a seafood product.” 

Dina Fernandez, global director, protein nutrition solutions, ADM, advised incorporating solutions with low levels of nitrates that limit pink or red color development—hues that are undesirable in applications like halibut or tilapia. “Our textured proteins, including soy, wheat and pea, as well as textured protein flakes, are quality, clean tasting and light color options that also bring in a delicate bite and chew,” Fernandez explained. 

Beyond the protein source, ADM also builds in complementary solutions. “Using our vast ingredient library, we identify the best emulsifiers and stabilizers to further enhance texture,” she continued. “Taste modulation flavors like umami also help spark important mouthwatering sensory experiences during the eating process. Created by our culinary team, our food bases, spice pastes and vegan savory flavors help build authentic seafood experiences. 

“Specifically, our vegan shellfish flavor base is particularly fantastic, built in the distinct notes of traditional shellfish. Plus, our wide variety of commercialized fish species-specific vegan flavors, from white fish to cod and more, replicate the sensory aspects consumers expect. We also have flavor profiles that mimic popular seafood preparation methods, including vegan boiled shellfish-type and vegan natural seafood boil-type flavors. Moreover, our natural colors further heighten the visual appeal of alternative seafood offerings, making them visually appetizing from the package to the plate.” 

New processing technologies allow plant-based colors to be incorporated not only in the mix, but also to the exterior. “This innovation could be used to mimic the coral stripes on cooked shrimp or when nonhomogenous color is desired,” said Alice Lee, technical marketing manager, GNT USA LLC. “In these product categories, utilizing plant-based colors can also mean delivering a certain color concentration and viscosity to allow for topical spray applications.” 

Mohamad Youssef El Majdoub, flavorist, IFF, stressed the importance of understanding the differences between crustaceans, mollusks, white fish and oily fish, just to name a few flavor variants. “Starting from the brine or seawater tasteؙ—every seafood has this type of profile,” said Youssef El Majdoub. “Some are stronger than others; some are saltier or more metallic than others. Understanding the differences in sweetness, sourness and fattiness makes the flavor more authentic as well.” 

Adjusting the level of the fish amine component is another critical step. He explained this component is a chemical that gets more intense when the fish isn’t as fresh. “Mimicking seafood products must take into consideration the freshness of the fish that is trying to be copied,” Youssef El Majdoub continued. “For example, some frozen products, such as fish sticks, don’t use the freshest fish available, yet that is what the consumer is familiar with, so that’s the flavor that needs to be re-created. The flavor needs to meet consumer expectations, and it’s important to understand those consumer expectations.” 

Companies are already striving to give consumers the taste, appearance and texture they anticipate in alternative seafood products. Data from the Good Food Institute’s 2021 report confirmed the development in this niche is paying off: “There was a 25% increase in the number of plant-based seafood products sold in retail in the United States in 2021. Total U.S. retail plant-based seafood sales increased by 14% in the past year and 42% in the past two years, including growth in both plant-based shellfish and plant-based finfish.” 

Cindy Hazen has more than 25 years of experience developing seasonings, dry blends, beverages and more. Today, when not writing or consulting, she expands her knowledge of food safety as a food safety officer for a Memphis-based produce distributor. 

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