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Sarah Hutcherson headshot

Is Plant-Based Fish the New Vegan Burger?

plant-based fish

As much as 55 percent of our oceans are fished industrially, which is equivalent to four times the total land mass used for agriculture. Meanwhile, warmer waters due to climate change are causing sharp declines in fishery populations, National Geographic reports.

These facts, coupled with recent findings that climate change and overfishing could increase the mercury levels in fish, make for a guilt-ridden pescatarian experience. These bleak environmental factors pose stark economic implications because the global fishing industry accounted for $362 billion of economic output as of 2016, according to a State of World Fisheries report.

The poor state of industrial fishing, our oceans, and the associated health risks together are sobering. Plus, deciphering whether to eat wild-caught fish versus farmed fish adds another level of complexity as this dilemma brings up questions around ecosystem impact, carbon footprints and plastics.

The silver lining, however, is that more companies are seeking less extractive solutions that rely on a different supply chain to bring a whole new kind of fish—made from plant-based ingredients—to the earth’s growing population.

The latest in food tech: Plant-based fish

Companies working to create the ultimate plant-based fish include New Wave Foods, a plant-based shrimp company; Good Catch Foods, a company that produces a plant-based tuna; and, of course, Impossible Foods, the company known for its vegan bloody burger.

Impossible Foods in particular is on a rapid growth trajectory; note its recent announcement that the company will expand its production. This is a timely decision as during 2018, the nascent plant based food category is projected to grow at a rate of almost 25 percent over the next several years. And the company hopes to have enough plant-based options to make animal protein unnecessary by 2035.

Currently, Good Catch Foods’ products are available in some New York City Whole Foods locations. New Wave Foods’ shrimp are available at select restaurants in San Francisco and New York City. Impossible Foods has yet to release a plant-based fish option. 

If the plant-based fish segment is to grow as quickly and with the level of impact that the plant-based meat sector has, plant-based fish companies need to win the hearts of non-environmentalists and non-vegans, i.e., everyday consumers.

Mastering taste and texture key to acceptance of plant-based fish alternatives

Companies focused on developing plant-based fish alternatives realize they have to research and innovate quickly if they are to offer products that can sway consumers with flavor and texture. 

“The only way we can succeed,” Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown told The New York Times, “is to make fish from plants that is more delicious than the fish that’s strip-mined from the ocean.”

Impossible Foods is ramping up research and even recently announced that it created a plant-based broth with a similar taste to one made from anchovies, Food & Wine reported. Plus, the FDA’s approval of the Impossible Burger’s “plant blood” is an exciting step for the company if it can get closer to achieving a plant-based fish formula that has the mouthfeel of a fish. The trick is heme, the molecule that creates a taste and texture that makes our brain experience the animalistic aspect of the meatless burger, and hopefully soon, fishless fish.

Texture and flavor have been important to Good Catch as well. It spent two years launching its canned tuna product line, according to VegWorld Magazine. The company’s plant-based tuna is comprised of algae, beans and legumes to achieve a fish texture similar to canned tuna.

“In terms of texture, that was probably the biggest feat. Diversifying the proteins enabled us to create the texture with six different beans,” Chad Sarno, the co-founder of Good Catch, told Marketwatch.

Communicating the benefits present challenges in growing the plant-based fish market

Consumers see fish as a healthy source of Omega 3s, vitamin D and minerals. Hence their motivation to switch from fish to a plant-based alternative for health reasons isn’t as obvious as switching from cattle-based beef to plant-based burgers.

“A lot of people will simply say if you eat meat, you’re increasing your risk of cancer,” Tom Rees, who studies the packaged food industry for the market research firm Euromonitor International, told The New York Times. “There isn’t an equivalent of that for fish.”

Even though fish is known as a healthy animal protein and there is a debate about the functional benefits of plant-based Omega 3s versus Omega 3s from fish, plant-based fish companies do have valid functional benefits to tout. They include foods rich in protein, as well as the absence of mercury and other toxins which in the end, are an improvement for everyday health.

Interest in a plant-based lifestyle bodes well for plant-based fish

The nascent plant-based fish segment, which currently makes up less than one percent of the total plant-based meat market, is poised for growth. Sales of plant-based food are expected to surpass $13 trillion by 2025. Plus, millennials with children are more likely to adopt plant-based diets, which could lead to a new generation that is more mindful and willing to adopt a plant-based lifestyle, Forbes reports.

Investors’ interest in plant-based fish companies also signals a new tide in plant-based fish’s status. Good Catch secured $8.7 million in 2018, while Chipotle invested in Sophie’s Kitchen, a vegan fish company, at the beginning of 2019.

Since four out of 10 pounds of animal products consumed globally are fish, the business opportunity to reinvent the fish industry cannot be overlooked. The race is on as companies vie for the ultimate product to make Fishless Friday the new Meatless Monday.

Image credit: Good Catch Foods

Sarah Hutcherson headshot

As a recent Bard MBA Sustainability graduate, Sarah is excited to be a contributing writer to TriplePundit to demonstrate how environmentally and socially responsible business is synonymous with stronger returns and a more sustainable world. She is most intrigued with how to foster regenerative food systems, develop inclusive and democratic workplaces and inspire responsible consumption.

Read more stories by Sarah Hutcherson