The Smart Protein Project: Developing the next generation of plant-based fish – vegconomist

Given that the Smart Protein Project aims to develop sustainable foods for the future, it makes sense that we explore plant-based fish, especially given the highly unsustainable nature of the global fishing industry. In preparing this article, we consulted with several Smart Protein partners, including the Good Food Institute, ProVeg International, applied research organization Fraunhofer, and seafood companies Soguima and Thai Union.

As the plant-based market continues to grow at an accelerated rate, it may seem that fish and seafood alternatives have been left behind. While this is true to some degree, it also means that the alternative fish sub-sector represents a key opportunity in the alternative food sector – as there is plenty of room for new products to enter the market and considerable room for growth. And, given the general enthusiasm for the plant space from investors and consumers alike, it seems likely that plant-based fish is poised to catch up to its meat and dairy counterparts over the next few years.

© Schouten Europe

Looking at the alternative seafood sector globally, it is clear that the industry is beginning to grow at an accelerating pace, particularly in terms of investment, with global investment in the sector growing from a quarter of million US dollars in 2015 to 100 million US dollars. in 2021.[1] In Germany, where the plant-based sector is particularly developed, Nielsen data for the two-year period ending October 2020 shows that plant-based fish had the highest growth rate of all fish categories. foods of plant origin, with growth of 623% over the two years. While this rapid growth is partly due to the low initial value of the sector, the rapid expansion of sales from €261K in 2018 to €1.9M in 2020 is not to be overlooked and gives an idea of ​​the growth potential. future. .

However, the selection of existing products is still very limited, consisting mainly of fish sticks and breaded fish burgers. The development and launch of herbal analogues of fish fillets and other popular fish products are necessary to meet unmet market demand. According to Kai-Brit Bechtold, Principal Investigator at ProVeg, “Consumer research suggests there is a strong need to improve the ingredients and prices of these products.”

©Vegan Zeastar

All of this suggests that plant-based fish presents a potentially lucrative business opportunity for those who can rise to the challenge of developing compelling fish analogs.

What do consumers want in plant-based fish products?

The Consumer Advice Center in Hessen, Germany, recently conducted a survey exploring the consumption habits of 80 vegan and vegetarian consumers in relation to 20 plant-based seafood products. The results revealed the following facts about consumers’ experience of plant-based fish:

  • A recognizable fishy flavor is crucial, as is a chewing experience similar to conventional fish products.
  • Currently, most products do not meet consumer needs – they are either over-processed or contain too many additives, while lacking key components typically found in fish, such as omega-3 fatty acids, iodine and vitamin B12. Although the products contain protein, the ratio is generally not as high as with conventional fish.
  • Moreover, the price of plant-based fish is too high, especially for products that consumers do not find satisfactory enough. For example, breaded fish sticks cost 60% more than conventional fish sticks.

Of the 20 products tested, about two-thirds used highly processed soybeans and/or grains (such as rehydrated wheat protein) as protein sources. Half of the products used seaweed and/or seaweed to impart a fishy flavor, while some products were fortified with additional flavors. Almost all of the products tested lacked typical fish nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, iodine and vitamin B12.


There is clearly a lot of room for improvement in this category, especially in terms of ingredients and price. At the same time, there is a lot of development in the sector. The Smart Protein Project, together with its partners, is working hard to meet these challenges.

Developing better plant-based fish products

Emanuel Guimarães is COO of Portuguese seafood company Soguima and an active partner in the Smart Protein project. He had some helpful insights into what is needed to bring plant-based fish to par with conventional products.

Guimarães points out that it’s likely that one of the reasons why seafood analogues have lagged in terms of market offerings is that fish and seafood have unique sensory characteristics. Generally speaking, these characteristics are the result of a combination of factors, ranging from volatile chemical compounds to the unique muscle structure of fish. But, says Guimarães, “While developing and launching more precise seafood alternatives presents a challenge in terms of food technology, it also represents an attractive opportunity – one that will be very profitable for companies that break the bank. alternative fish.”

One of the main challenges is to mask the flavors and colors of plant-based ingredients, while getting the right sensory characteristics. Yet at the same time, consumers are increasingly demanding cleaner labels and less processed foods. The challenge is to mask flavors and colors without using unpopular additives.

Growth foods
© Growthwell Foods

Color is key to consumer acceptance when it comes to alternative fish. Products that are noticeably different in color from the product they are trying to replace will never convince consumers. Since synthetic coloring already faces opposition from consumers and regulators, one strategy is to try to mimic seafood which naturally has recognizable and easily obtainable colors. Examples of fish with easily repeatable color palettes include tuna, salmon, fish roe, and cephalopods such as squid or octopus.

In terms of masking or minimizing unwanted flavors, there are a host of proven techniques that are used in both conventional fish and other foods. These include processing methods such as pickling, salting, fermentation and smoking, all of which can be used to enhance and complement the flavor and texture of seafood analogues. It should be mentioned that if these traditional methods are sometimes modified or supplemented with modern synthetic additives or processes, in terms of consumer appeal, simpler is always better – especially in the European market, where levels of consumer awareness and food regulation are particularly students.

Schouten fish-free sticks

The role of extrusion in the development of vegetable fish

As with beef and poultry analogues, most plant-based fish products are likely to be produced using an extrusion process, in which plant proteins are mixed with water , then mixed and heated, before being extruded into their final form. The extrusion process involves many variables that can affect the texture, mouthfeel and appearance of the finished product. These include temperature profile, screw design and speed, mass flow rate, die shape and moisture content, all of which can be adjusted separately to determine a particular product texture.

Creating compelling products requires a deep understanding and experience of the multiple interactions between raw materials and the extrusion process. With adjustments to the process, a wide variety of shapes and textures can be generated, from soft and juicy to dense and chewy.

Triton Algae Innovations
© Triton Algae Innovations

Although there is a great deal of expertise on traditional extrusion inputs such as soy, knowledge on the behavior of newer ingredient materials must be generated from scratch, especially when new ingredients are blended with a another in a multicomponent mixture.

Although there are challenges, extrusion makes it possible to turn any vegetable raw material into a variety of fish and seafood alternatives, from soft fish steaks to dense tuna shreds to shrimp. Adjusting variables in the extrusion process allows for the creation of plant-based versions of a wide range of conventional seafood.

Finally, from a nutritional perspective, the gold standard for plant-based fish products should be a complete replacement of all essential amino acids and vitamins naturally found in fish products. Since not all plant proteins contain all of the essential amino acids, a suitable approach to designing an optimal amino acid profile for humans may be to combine different plant protein sources and process them as mixtures rather so many unique ingredients.

Loryma Vegan Fried Fish

A promising future for the sector

Despite the challenges facing the industry and its slow initial growth compared to other protein analogues, plant-based seafood is set to take off in the coming years, especially as concerns about sustainability concerns for conventional seafood continue to grow. The Smart Protein Project, together with its partners, is committed to accelerating this growth by providing research and support where possible. If you have any questions or are interested in investing or developing plant-based seafood, please contact Paloma Nosten.

[1] Good Food Institute (2021): State of the Industry Report. Alternative seafood. January 2020 – June 2021. Available at: [Accessed: 10.09.2021]

(Invested capital includes accelerator and incubator funding, angel funding, seed funding, equity and product crowdfunding, early stage venture capital, late stage venture capital, growth/l private equity expansion, capitalization, joint venture, joint venture, convertible debt and closed general debt transactions. Note: Data not reviewed by PitchBook analysts.)

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