From plant-based meat that “bleeds” to lab-grown milk, fake meats and dairy have come a long way in recent years. But there’s another alternative scientists are leaning towards, one with the most difficult texture to recreate of all: seafood.
Copenhagen scientists are fermenting seaweed on mushrooms to develop the closest seafood substitute yet, working with Alchemist, a two-Michelin-star restaurant, to meet diners’ demand for sustainable plant-based alternatives that are as good as – or better than – the real thing.
Mimicking the fibrous texture of seafood is a difficult achievement, and the team is experimenting with growing filamentous fungi, the microorganisms found in soil that form a mass of intertwined strands, on seaweed, to create a product unique to the taste of the sea.
“We scientists are not good at figuring out how to make things delicious, and that decides whether people will eat them. We have a lot to learn from each other. [Working with chefs] is slowly emerging, but so far it hasn’t happened to the extent it would take to end up with really good products,” said Dr Leonie Jahn, the microbiologist leading the project.
Seafood alternatives that look like the real thing have lagged behind progress in developing meatless replicas such as the Impossible Burger, designed to “bleed”, and plant-based milks.
Jahn said that’s partly because there’s less demand as consumers view seafood as healthier and – wrongly – more sustainable, and partly because recreating the texture of fish and Seafood was more difficult. “It has these layers, the texture is kind of soft but you have some resistance and chewiness, it’s pretty hard to replicate,” she said.
His team will use mycelia, fungal root-like structures that resemble yeast. Mycelia are currently of particular scientific interest, with researchers exploring applications not only for plant-based meat, but also as an alternative to plastic. They will experiment with different fermentation and growth conditions to discover how best to recreate the delicate texture of seafood.
Another challenge arises because the algae, which will provide fishy flavor while being highly durable and nutritious, does not provide ideal growing conditions for the mycelium.
Rasmus Munk, the head chef and co-owner of Alchemist, said the restaurant wanted to “change people’s perception of ‘new foods'”. Creating alternatives to seafood was important, he said, because “frankly, I haven’t found anything on the market right now that I would put on the menu.”
“The ultimate goal is to create a product that is so delicious on its own, that it is chosen over other foods based on flavor alone,” he added.
According to a report of the Good Food Institute, which is funding the project, 2021 has been a year of “tremendous growth” for the alternative seafood market, with 18 new businesses launched and sales rising at an “astonishing rate”. The report describes alternative seafood as a “white space opportunity,” meaning there was huge untapped consumer demand.
Seren Kell, science and technology manager at the Good Food Institute Europe, said investment in plant-based seafood is at a much earlier stage than other sustainable proteins, but there are “innovations exciting” such as using 3D printing to imitate fish fillets. To accelerate this, she said, “governments need to invest in open access research and development.”
While many UK supermarkets have launched ranges of fake fish to cash in on overfishing concerns, much of what’s on offer only faintly resembles seafood in flavoring tofu or jackfruit.
Jens Møller, who runs Danish company Cavi Art, which makes alternative caviar from seaweed pearls, said the higher price of plant-based alternatives was another barrier to the mass market. His company aims to be significantly cheaper than the products it replaces, so 80% of eggs served in restaurants in Denmark use Cavi·Art caviar instead of the real thing.
“There is no doubt that the market will grow rapidly as product quality increases and prices fall. I think there is an increased awareness of the problems of our oceans and we need to change our habits,” he said.