“The need for seafood alternatives has become absolutely vital” as consumer demand for seafood begins to outpace already strained supply, Kishan Vasani, CEO and co-founder of Spoonshot told attendees at the IFT FIRST conference in Chicago this month.
Pointing to research from Stanford that found global fish consumption doubled since 1998 and is set to increase another 80% by 2050, Vasani said Spoonshot data also shows consumer interest in pescatarian diets has increased 9% in the 12 months ending in April 2022 and is up 117% since 2016.
Based on online consumer conversations tracked by Spoonshot, this uptick is driven primarily by consumer interest in the health benefits offered by seafood, including anti-inflammatory, weight loss, detoxification, heart health, antioxidant and brain, skin, gut and eye health alongside muscle gain, Vasani said.
“In terms of nutrition, consumers see seafood as a good source of protein and omega fatty acids and well-being, also low-carb,” he added.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “it is this popularity of seafood that is also causing the problem.”
He explained that unlike livestock where populations are projected to double by 2050, fresh water and ocean fish populations are dwindling at alarming rates, with the UN estimating that 90% of marine life and fish populations are fully used already or overused or are under severe threat from overfishing, pollution and rising ocean temperatures.
“If the world continues to consume at this rate, there may well be no fish left by the time we get to 2050,” he said.
“Given these issues, it’s imperative that we focus on alternatives for seafood and fish, and this is where we expect to see the biggest growth spurt in terms of innovation – not just because it is kind of obvious, but actually more importantly because there is greater urgency for sea and fish alternatives compared to meat ones,” Vasani said.
Currently the plant-base seafood segment is only a fraction of the size of its counterparts in meat and dairy, Vasani said, pointing to data from the Good Food Institute and Plant Based Foods Association that found in 2021 plant-based seafood sales reached $14m compared to plant-based milk, which raked in $250b in 2021, and plant-based meat which reached $140b in sales.
Companies are moving fast to innovate, face significant challenges
However, Vasani said, companies are moving fast to fill the white space with business interest in plant-based fish rising 3,745% since 2016, according to Spoonshot, which tracked and exponential uptick between January 2020 and January 2022.
Still, he said, they face significant barriers to growth, including off-flavors and -textures, according to Spoonshot data.
While the seafood alternative space is innovating and iterating quickly, part of the mismatch between business and consumer engagement with plant-based options may be the base ingredients that are used versus the ones shoppers are most interested in.
According to Spoonshot, the most popular ingredients in alternative seafood products are soy beans, fava beans, peas, haricot beans and green lentils, but the top ingredients that consumers associate with vegan fish and seafood in online conversations are banana blossom, tofu, seaweed, nori, seitan, peas, mushrooms, jackfruit and chickpeas in descending order.
Of these, strong ingredient combinations that earned high marks from consumers for novelty and flavor are jackfruit and kelp, mushroom and kelp with cocoa bean, and banana blossom with seaweed powder and salt, according to Spoonshot research.
The Cornish Seaweed Company and Jack & Bry, a gourmet plant-based meat company, already is leveraging the benefits of these blends with the launch of what it calls the world’s first unbreaded jackfruit and seaweed fish fillet, which relies on the jackfruit to mimic fish’s flakiness and the seaweed its taste.
Paris-based Seafood Reboot and Austrian startup Revo Foods are using algae to create more realistic seafood alternatives, while spirulina is the star in Israeli food tech company SimpliiGood’s upcoming 2023 launch of a smoked salmon analog, according to Spoonshot.
As innovative companies play with and expand the toolbox of ingredients and technologies for recreating seafood from plants, Vasani predicts consumer engagement with increase exponentially, and thus his expectations for the segment are high for the coming years.