Faux fish is angling to be the next big thing in alternative protein.
Alt-meat has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years as consumers have started to change what they eat for a variety of reasons, ranging from concerns over climate change and sustainability to animal welfare and personal health benefits.
That has led to a proliferation of products from companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat across grocery stores and restaurants while traditional meat companies like Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms and Hormel are launching new entrants in the category.
U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods grew 27% in 2020, bringing the total market to roughly $7 billion, according to data from the Plant-Based Foods Association (PBFA) and the Good Food Institute (GFI). The global market is forecasted to grow to $450 billion by 2040, according to consulting firm Kearney, which would represent roughly a quarter of the broader $1.8 trillion meat market.
The market for plant-based products has largely been driven by faux milk and meat, which make up 35% and 20%, respectively, of the total sales in the category, according to GFI. Plant-based meat sales grew 45% to $1.4 billon in 2020, while plant-based milk sales grew 20% to $2.5 billion.
The market for plant-based fish, on the other hand, has been slower to develop. While U.S. sales grew 23% in 2020, it only accounted for $12 million, according to GFI and PBFA. That represents 0.1% of the entire U.S. seafood market, compared to sales of plant-based meat making up 1.4% of U.S. meat sales.
“Conventional seafood really has a health halo around it; it’s seen as a very healthy food that doctors often tell patients to consume more of,” Marika Azoff, corporate engagement specialist at GFI, said as to why alternative fish products may have lagged behind. “The environmental impacts aren’t as straightforward as they are with beef and dairy – they are a little bit more complex and kind of harder for the general public to grasp.”
However, several companies are looking to change that in an attempt to take a piece of the more than $15 billion U.S. seafood market.
There were 83 companies globally producing alternative seafood products as of June 2021, according to GFI, with 65 of them focusing on plant-based products. In comparison, there were only 29 companies producing alternative seafood products in 2017.
In 2020, more than $80 million was invested in alternative seafood companies — four times the amount invested in 2019, according to GFI.
BlueNalu’s whole-muscle, cell-based yellowtail amberjack.
Gathered Foods, which produces plant-based seafood brand Good Catch, raised a $32 million Series B funding round in January 2020 from investors including Lightlife Foods parent company Greenleaf Foods and 301 Inc., the venture arm of General Mills.
BlueNalu, which is focused on cultured seafood, or fish produced directly from cells, raised $60 million in convertible note financing in January 2021, a record deal for an alternative seafood company.
To date, the two giants of alternative meat products have not yet made an entry in alternative fish. Impossible Foods said in 2019 that it was working on a plant-based fish recipe, but it has yet to release any products. Beyond Meat has previously stated it was focused on beef, poultry and pork.
“There’s no reason that alterative seafood can’t or won’t catch up to the other types of alternative proteins,” said Azoff. “There is not a dominate company in plant-based seafood the way the meat and dairy categories have, but we’re seeing potential for that to change soon.”
Traditional seafood companies are also making their own investments in alternative fish.
In September 2020, Nestlé launched Vuna, a plant-based tuna alternative that is the company’s first foray into plant-based seafood, citing statistics that 90% of global fish stocks are now depleted or close to depletion.
Thai Union Group, which owns brands like Chicken of the Sea, said it will launch a plant-based shrimp product by the end of this year, joining its other plant-based fish and crab products already available.
Tyson Ventures, the venture capital arm of Tyson Foods, invested in plant-based shellfish company New Wave Foods in September 2019, and joined its $18 million Series A funding round that closed in January. Bumble Bee Foods signed a joint venture with Good Catch in March 2020.
Virginia-based Van Cleve Seafood Company, which sold traditional seafood for more than 20 years, started solely producing plant-based seafood products under the label The Plant Based Seafood Co., citing issues with the fishing industry such as child labor, overfishing and mislabeling.
“We wanted to do something about it, and we thought if not us, then who?” Plant Based Seafood Co. chief executive officer Monica Talbert told CNBC’s Kate Rogers. “That’s when we made the decision, we were going to do something that would create change.”
The Plant Based Seafood Co. has products like crab cakes made from artichokes, and scallops and shrimp made from vegetable root starch, all of which are sold out online.
Concerns about the fishing industry, further highlighted in the recent Netflix documentary “Seaspriacy” that advocates for the end of fish consumption, is viewed as a driver for consumers to switch to plant-based products. A poll of 2,500 Americans from Kelton Global found that reducing plastic waste in the ocean, saving ocean habitats and reducing harm towards marine animals would be reasons consumers would buy plant-based fish over wild-caught fish.
Gavin Gibbons, vice president of communications at the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group representing the fishing industry, said that the organization and its member companies view plant-based products a as “very likely part of the future of feeding a growing planet.”
“They’re technologically impressive and can and should be able to coexist with real seafood, as long as they’re labeled accurately,” Gibbons said, noting that some of NFI’s member companies have made investments into alternative seafood.
However, Gibbons said, presenting alternative seafood as either nutritionally superior to real fish or better for sustainability reasons would be wrong in his view.
“The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans highlight that consumers don’t eat nearly enough seafood and it is unarguably the healthiest animal protein on the planet,” he said. “Few public health professionals would recommend imitation seafood over the real thing. They might make that recommendation for other products but not seafood. From that perspective these plant-based amalgams aren’t really alternatives they’re simply imitations.”
Gibbons said that 51% of the seafood consumers eat is farmed and about 75% of commercially important marine fish stocks, as stated and monitored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, are fished within biologically sustainable levels.
“There’s a lot of hyperbole associated with claims about empty oceans and if that’s being used to market imitation products then it’s disingenuous,” Gibbons said.
There is one big obstacle that could stand in the way of fake fish: taste.
While 43% of respondents to that Kelton poll said they would consider purchasing alternative seafood in the future and most cited flavor as the most important factor in driving consumption, 38% said they anticipate disliking the taste of alternative fish and 27% said they anticipate disliking the texture. Twenty-seven percent said they have never seen plant-based seafood at a grocery store.
“First and foremost, consumers are going to purchase alternative seafood if it tastes good,” Azoff said.