Plastic straws are the enemy du jour at the moment. This heartbreaking video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck up his or her nostril has resulted in multi-national corporations pledging to ban single-use plastic straws.
This is a laudable cause, but on its own, it’s like sticking a band aid over a bullet wound instead of performing surgery to remove the offending object to ensure it does no more damage. Our oceans are, indeed, under threat, but not just from microplastics.
Overfishing has become catastrophic. A report by Nature Communications in 2016 found that far more fish have been caught globally between 1950 and 2010 than was admitted, leading to a sharp decline in the number of fish in the sea. Industrial fisheries using large commercial machinery to trawl the ocean bed result in millions of other sea animals, including whales, dolphins and turtles, getting trapped and killed in nets – known as ‘bycatch’. Aquaculture – essentially the factory farming of fish – poses a host of health and environmental hazards.
Meanwhile, slave labor, which is particularly rife in the shrimp industry, poses ethical problems, as does the issue of animal cruelty, something often overlooked when it comes to sea creatures. Scientific evidence has found that fish are sentient and feel both physical and emotional pain, as do crabs, lobsters and other crustaceans.
Fortunately there are a group of entrepreneurs stepping up to provide a practical, sustainable and cruelty-free solution to these problems: Plant-based alternatives to popular seafood products.
California-based Sophie’s Kitchen led the field when it launched in 2011 with a range of plant-based canned tuna, frozen crab cakes, fish fillets and shrimp, along with frozen and refrigerated smoked salmon. The products are free from soy and gluten, are non-GMO and kosher. Key ingredients are konjac (also known as elephant yam), which is popular in Japanese cuisine, and yellow pea.
Founder Eugene Wang had been making vegetarian products for more than 25 years, but decided to specialize in vegan seafood when his young daughter (who the company is named after) developed a serious allergy to shellfish.
Being an SME with no outside investment, Sophie’s Kitchen was unable to keep up with the demand for its frozen products in US stores, so decided to focus on its Vegan Toona canned fish alternatives that come in Sea Salt and Black Pepper varieties. Currently available nationwide in Whole Foods, Sprouts and a plethora of independent stores, and stocked next to real tuna, sales of these products increased by 72% between the first quarter of 2017 to the first quarter of 2018. “Some stores cross-merchandise the cans in the vegan, plant-based, refrigerated section next to vegan mayonnaise too,” says Wang. “It gives the consumer the idea that these Toonas can be used just like real tuna.”
Wang, who is currently working on product development with two universities in Asia, is keen to position Sophie’s Kitchen as a clean-label brand. “Unlike some meat alternatives, we only use real food ingredients,” he says. “Nothing is lab-grown because we believe that nature provides all the components for great food. The most influential thing about the clean-label movement is the fact that it forced us, as manufacturers, to take a more responsible and transparent approach to the ingredients we use. As retailers and consumers are educated, we move toward positive change. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
Over the past three years, buoyed by the surge in demand for plant-based products, several new players have entered the vegan seafood scene – and investors are queuing up to fund them.
Ocean Hugger Foods in New York has made a splash in the restaurant and food service sector with its raw tuna, Ahimi, which CEO David Benzaquen says is the world’s first plant-based alternative to raw tuna, for use in dishes such as sushi, ceviche, poke, tartare and crudo.
Created by certified master chef James Corwell and launched onto the market in November 2017, Ahimi is currently sold in approximately 50 Whole Foods stores across the US, in college and corporate cafeterias run by institutional food service providers Aramark and Bon Appetit Management Company, including the offices of Twitter, and in independent restaurants in the US and Canada.
According to Benzaquen, the first poke restaurant to carry the product – Westcoast Poke in Vancouver, Canada – sold over 300 pounds of Ahimi in just one location in the eatery’s first month of carrying it. And just a couple of months ago, Nishimoto Trading Company, a publicly-traded Japanese company, and one of Ocean Hugger’s primary investors and distributors, announced that it plans to roll out Ahimi globally.
Ahimi is sold as a food service ingredient, not as a packaged food product for consumers to take home and cook with. Even in retail establishments like Whole Foods, it’s sold at the sushi bar in the rolls, not on the shelf. “We decided to sell it this way because most consumers don’t make raw fish dishes at home,” explains Benzaquen. “Instead, most people buy these dishes ready-made in restaurants. By selling it to chefs to make at their restaurants we’re bypassing having to teach consumers to make raw fish dishes and then to also make them plant-based.”
Designed to be an alternative to ahi tuna, with a savory, meaty taste, Ahimi is made with five simple ingredients, the key one being tomato. The texture and flavor of the tomato are transformed through a special technique and the product has been hailed in several quarters for its realistic taste to actual tuna.
In addition to vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians, Ahimi is aimed at those with seafood allergies or people who choose not to eat raw fish for safety reasons, such as pregnant women, the elderly and infirm, and those who are immuno-compromised. “It’s also great for anyone looking for clean, plant-based products or avoiding tuna and other endangered species for sustainability reasons,” says Benzaquen, who himself switched to plant-based eating after witnessing the suffering of fish first-hand. “I’m thrilled at the success we’re seeing with the adoption of plant-based beef, poultry and dairy, but there’s been too little focus on the need to stop the crisis in our oceans. Over 90% of species live in the oceans and over 90% of carbon is stored in the oceans. Destroying our aquatic ecosystems is catastrophic. With an estimated 50 billion aquatic animals killed for food in the US every year, which is five times as much as all land animals combined, I want to be a part of saving those species, as well as saving our own species.”
With a Masters in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Dominique Barnes has also experienced first-hand the devastating impacts of commercial seafood production on the oceans. Determined to come up with a solution, she teamed up with biomedical engineering graduate Michelle Wolf to launch New Wave Foods, which has been developing plant-based shrimp alternatives, in both a raw and crispy breaded format, since 2015.
The female-led company, which is based in San Francisco, is taking a similar approach to Ocean Hugger in focusing initially on placing its algae-based products with food service providers and restaurants. Chefs at Google’s cafeteria have already placed an order and the products are the first plant- and algae-based items to be served at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s café as part of its Seafood Watch sustainability initiative. “Two thirds of seafood is consumed outside the home, so it made sense to go where the fish are,” says Barnes. “Our goal is impact, and food service is positioned to be the place where we can have the biggest impact. Whenever the general word ‘shrimp’ comes up in any context, that’s the conversation we’re trying to be a part of.”
After going through the IndieBio startup accelerator, New Wave received $250,000 from VC firm SOSV. This was followed by undisclosed seed fundingfrom VC firms New Crop Capital and Efficient Capacity. Plant-based VC firm Blue Horizon is also an investor.
While it’s about to roll out its products in some eateries in New York, the company is taking a slower approach to growth, rather than rushing to market. “We often hear the phrase ‘fail fast’ in Silicon Valley, which makes a lot of sense if you’re rolling out a new website or app,” says Barnes. “Feedback and updates can be made in minutes, but with food, that iterative process takes more time, and there’s more risk. Pioneering a path to creating our shrimp at scale has been a main focus recently. With tangible goods, particularly in the space we’re in, there’s just much more to innovate along the way. We’re approaching the market strategically and will grow sustainably, so our products can be enjoyed for years to come.”
Finally, New York-based Good Catch Foods is gearing up to launch its range of vegan tuna, crab cakes, fish sliders and fish burgers later this year and into 2019.
Good Catch was founded in 2016 by plant-based chefs Derek and Chad Sarno (who were recently hired by UK supermarket giant Tesco to create its range of Wicked Kitchen vegan meals), along with innovator Marci Zaroff, natural products specialist Eric Schnell, and Chief Investment Officer of New Crop Capital, Chris Kerr. Investors include Blue Horizon, and the company netted $5.5 million in April this year in Series A funding from vegan VC firm Stray Dog Capital.
Made from a blend of six legumes, including peas, soy, chickpeas, lentils, fava and navy beans, along with sea algae oil to give a umami flavor, the products are set to launch in online retailers Thrive Market and Fresh Direct later this year, followed by other retailers and restaurants across the US. International expansion is planned for 2019.
If the current growth of the plant-based foods and drinks sector is anything to go buy, the future for innovators, as well as our oceans, could well be rosy. Recent data compiled by Nielsen on behalf of the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) shows that plant-based foods’ dollar sales grew by 20% over the past year in the retail sector, for a total of $3.3 billion. With overall food sales growth at only 2%, PBFA says this means plant-based foods’ growth is outpacing all other retail food sales by 10x.
And while still in its infancy, particularly compared with the proliferation of plant-based burgers, sausages and other alternatives to land animal products on the market, the vegan seafood category is ripe for exponential growth and we can expect to see even more players entering the market. Just last month, 23-year-old Kimberlie Le received $100,000 from billionaire investor Peter Thiel’s fellowship program, in addition to a previous $250,000 seed injection from IndieBio, to develop her company Terramino’s vegan salmon burgers. Meanwhile traditional plant-based food brands are starting to add fish alternatives to their range: UK-based V-Bites’ fish steaks were recently added to the menu of nearly 150 outlets of the Greene King Flaming Grill pub chain as part of a vegan fish and chips meal.
Kerr, who serves as Good Catch’s CEO and chairman, is certainly optimistic about the growth of the plant-based seafood industry. “With such a wide variety of seafood we can use myriad plant-based culinary innovation techniques to give us an amazing seafood experience without the collateral damage of our current system,” he says. “We see this as an outsized economic opportunity, with massive potential for global impact. It’s arguably the single best use of our investment dollars and an area in which we’re very excited to be the tip of the proverbial harpoon – one pointing to plants as the best solution. It’s a win for consumers, entrepreneurs, our eco-system – and for the fishes.”
So, plastic straws may be on the way out, but vegan seafood is here to stay.
First published on Forbes