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Sophie’s Kitchen sees opportunity in plant-based seafood alternatives

By Elizabeth Crawford

29-Apr-2016

Source: E. Crawford
Source: E. Crawford

The global market for plant-based meat alternatives is growing fast, but most players in the space are focused on replacing land animals – leaving the potential for seafood alternatives wide open for innovative entrepreneurs to seize.

An early and quickly growing entrant in the nascent seafood alternative space is Sophie’s Kitchen, of which the CEO and founder Eugene Wang claims is the leading vegan seafood company.

“When I introduce my company [as a vegan seafood company] a lot of eyebrows will be raised. Vegan? Seafood? These two words don’t seem to go hand in hand together,” but they should because there is a lot of potential, Wang said at the FoodBytes! pitch slam competition in Brooklyn earlier this spring.

“People understand that by 2050 there will be 9 billion people on this planet and animal protein is not going to be sustainable,” he said. “So, consumers are rushing to alternative proteins.”

In the US alone, 38% of the population is seeking plant-based alternatives to fish, meat, eggs and dairy at least part of the time, he said pointing to Mintel data.

On a global scale, this is fueling a 6.4% compound annual growth rate for the meat alternative market, which should reach $5.7 billion by 2020, according to Mintel.

In response, companies are coming up with replacements for land animals, but not many are focused on seafood – which has the potential to reach beyond consumers who want to reduce consumption of animal protein to include those who worry about the buildup of heavy metals, the use of antibiotics in fish farms and overfishing the open sea.

In addition, plant-base seafood alternatives would appeal to the 3-4% of adults and 8% of children who are allergic to seafood or shellfish, he said.

Sophie’s Kitchen is meeting this demand by offering a wide range of vegan alternatives, including canned tuna, crab cakes, breaded scallops, fish fillets, shrimp and even smoked salmon.

All of the products are soy free, non-GMO, gluten-free and kosher, he said.

Texture is key to success

But what really sets the products apart from other plant-based meat alternatives is its texture, Wang said.

“When it comes to meat alternatives, consumers are looking for three things: 1) source of protein, 2) texture and 3) flavor,” he said.

“Now, over the years, most of the businesses are tackling the issue of source of protein. We see the alternative proteins coming from nuts, coming from grains, and even from bugs. But very few companies are tackling the issue of texture, which after all is what gives the alternative meat” a fighting chance to replace animal protein, he said.

Sophie’s Kitchen tackles texture head on with unique technology that uses high pressure and temperature to transform any kind of alternative protein flour into textures that are close to animal protein, Wang said.

The company also addresses texture by using Konjac root – an ancient Asian superfood that is very high in fiber and can balance high amounts of protein, Wang said.

Expanding distribution

Sophie’s Kitchen’s products already are available in more than 1,000 retail stores nationwide, including Whole Foods, Wegmans, Safeway, Albertsons and others. But Wang hopes to expand the young company’s footprint by expanding the portfolio.

The firm recently launched two new heat and serve vegan seafood meals, which will bring the brand into a new category of complete frozen entrees.

He also is exploring non-seafood options, such as a vegan jerky, he said.

In addition, he wants to expand into Europe, “which is an even bigger opportunity for use,” he said.

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