Recreating the flakey, fatty and simultaneously dense and light texture of whole fish from plants has stumped many early movers in the plant-based seafood segment – pushing most plant-based seafood CPG companies in the market now to pursue minced options, like that found in cans or sticks.
But, Kelly Pan and the other co-founders of Impact Food, knew that as demand for seafood, including premium raw fish, continued to rise alongside the threat of overfishing that the world could not wait any longer for a viable whole-cut, plant-based option.
“The current animal-based food system is not sustainable for the environment, animals or humans. In particular, we see overfishing causing so much biodiversity loss and depleting fish stocks, that we knew we needed to act now to create a plant-based option,” Pan told FoodNavigator-USA, noting that approximately 90% of fish are at risk of extinction and less than 3% of the Bluefin tuna population remains in the ocean.
And so, through trial and error, and their combined expertise in molecular cell biology, electrical engineering and computer science, and business administration, Pan said she and her co-founders Adrian Miranda and Stephanie Daffara, “discovered a biochemical approach that matches the organoleptic properties of seafood.”
She explained that by combining plant-based protein isolate, including from peas, with starches, algae and “other such agents,” the team was able to recreate the gel-like texture of tuna to create a plant-based product that is flakey and “really melts in your mouth.”
Mimicking nutrition, not just taste
The proprietary blend of ingredients and technology platform created by the team not only closely mimics the taste and texture of raw tuna, but also its nutritional profile, Pan said.
“Many of the plant-based seafood products in the market are still really lacking in terms of nutritional profile, and while ours is not yet exactly the same as conventional tuna, we’re getting really close to it” through a combination of plant-based fibers, protein and essential vitamins, Pan said.
She acknowledged that the hardest part of recreating the nutritional profile of tuna is meeting the high protein content, given the off-notes that many plant-based proteins can impart. But she added that most consumers choosing sushi or poke are doing so primarily for flavor, mouthfeel and overall experience – not because seafood is a lean protein source. As such, she said, the company is prioritizing taste, but continues to fortify its product with higher protein with each iteration.
And while the protein count may be a bit lower than conventional seafood, the plant-based option created by Impact Food also lacks the contaminates that are in many wild and even farmed fish – which Pan says is a top selling point for many consumers.
Raising awareness and funds
Even as the company continues to tinker with its products, it is pursing partnerships with restaurants and the foodservice side of select retailers in the Bay Area in California to bring its plant-based tuna to market this year.
“Through those partnerships, we want to get feedback from actual consumers to see what they think about the product and how it performs in the market. From there, we plan to expand through food service to corporate accounts and afterwards retail channels where our product can be sold in the freezer aisle,” Pan said.
To help scale the business, Pan said, the company is preparing to close this month its first outside funding round.
“We are really excited about that, and hopefully this round will be able to give us a lot more runway so that we don’t have to focus as much on fundraising and we can focus more on just growing our business instead,” she added.
Looking forward, Pan said that once the company’s tuna is at scale, Impact Food plans to create other plant-based seafoods, such as crab – which was the first prototype it created – and salmon using its same versatile, proprietary technology platform.