Is fishless fish the next wave of meat substitutes?

Is fishless fish the next wave of meat substitutes?
Eaters of all persuasions fell for the meatless burger in a big way, but will they express the same enthusiasm for fishless fish? Impossible Foods, maker of the bleeding beefless burger that’s been a boon for U.S. Burger King locations, is banking on it. As The New York Times reports, the California-based company is developing its own seafood alternatives.

Thus far, Impossible’s piscine endeavour has taken the shape of a fish-free anchovy-flavoured broth, which the company’s research and development team used to make paella. While the applications of this particular product may seem fairly limited, the fish stock is reportedly part of a much grander goal: To create plant-based alternatives for all of the animal-based foods available for sale by 2035.

Meanwhile, chief competitor Beyond Meat – which, unlike Impossible Foods, is widely available in Canada and has partnered with national restaurant chains including A&W and Tim Hortons – doesn’t plan on joining the school of mock fish. “Beyond Meat continues to focus its innovation on three core platforms — beef, poultry and pork,” CEO Ethan Brown told the Times. “You can’t serve too many masters.”

Fishless fish is, of course, already here. Among the forerunners, Ocean Hugger Foods’s Ahimi , a tuna alternative made from tomatoes, began its Whole Foods Market-rollout in 2017. (Vancouver restaurant Westcoast Poké was the first to carry the product in Canada that same year.) Last year, the New York-based producer reportedly sold more than 90,000 kg (200,000 lb) of the ahi stand-in. It recently followed its success with the launch of Unami, an eggplant-based freshwater eel alternative, and is working on a carrot-derived salmon alternative called Sakimi. As Food Navigator reports, it’s also expanding across the pond: Ocean Hugger is expected to launch its plant-based tuna and eel in the U.K. this fall.

While the factors that led to the proliferation of meat alternatives are many — including health, animal welfare, environment and taste — advocates highlight sustainability as the main motivator for choosing fish analogues. According to the World Economic Forum , “Nearly 90 per cent of the world’s marine fish stocks are now fully exploited, overexploited or depleted.” But when it comes to influencing seafood consumer decisions, sustainability doesn’t rate very highly.

As a 2017 study out of Vancouver Island University and North Carolina’s Duke University showed, people care more about sensory attributes (appearance, smell and taste) and health implications when buying seafood: “The perceived sustainability of the product is of relatively low importance.” It’s unclear whether or not environmental pressures will move the needle on this point.

Eating local, wild-caught seafood “should be an easy choice,” Leigh Habegger, executive director for the Seafood Harvesters of America, told the Times. “When consumers purchase seafood harvested in their waters, they’re supporting coastal communities and small businesses, and there’s no question as to the health and sustainability of that seafood.”

As plant-based substitutes pop up in butcher’s cases and sushi counters around the world, the conversation around ultra-processed foods, and our reliance on them, is changing. These heavily altered foods, including meat alternatives, are increasingly under scrutiny for the health risks they could pose. Whether the likes of fish-free tinned tuna and salmon-less sashimi can hook the mainstream in this complicated landscape is yet to be determined.

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