The shift from niche to mainstream product
Diets free from animal products such as vegetarianism and veganism have now achieved wide social acceptance. Increasing numbers of manufacturers wish to exploit this niche market by offering vegan fish. The market researchers at Fact MR predict that trade in vegan fish products will grow by 28 percent annually until 2031. What can consumers expect today from plant-based fish replacements?
According to the 2021 Food Report from the German Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture, in 2020 approximately 10 percent of people in Germany were vegetarian and 2 percent were vegan. The motivations for this development are varied and include meat and food scandals in recent years, animal welfare and the climate crisis and the overfishing of the seas. But although most vegetarians and vegans avoid animal products, many do not wish to go without their taste completely. This creates an opportunity for the manufacturers of plant-based replacement products, who are developing many new ideas in order to make vegan food resemble the originals as much as possible both visually and in taste and texture. This also applies to vegan fish products! The market for plant-based fish alternatives is still relatively small, but it has significant potential for growth. The Good Food Institute (GFI) estimates the market for vegan meat, which also includes seafood alternatives, at almost 1.4 billion US dollars. Currently, fish and seafood make up only 1% of the vegan meat market, but this will change. There is a great willingness to invest, as developments in the USA have shown. There, only 4 million USD was invested in the vegan seafood sector in 2017. The investments reached 16.7 million US dollars by 2018, and as much as 41 million US dollars in 2019.
According to Good Food Institute, in the first six months of 2021 alone, this total rose to 116 million US dollars, partly due to crowdfunding. Both large corporations and small startups benefited from this, as both are surfing the same wave. The GFI lists 86 producers of alternative fish products worldwide. And this number seems to be growing consistently. There is significant optimism, since the global plant-based seafood sector is predicted to expand by an average of 28 percent per year over the next decade. The market research company Fact MR forecasts that the sector could reach a value of 1.3 billion US dollars by 2031. This is significant, but vanishingly small when compared to the global market for real fish and seafood, which is estimated at 586 billion dollars by IMARC Group market researchers. Salmon alone accounts for a good 50 billion dollars of this!
Challenging manufacturing technologies
Manufacturers are attempting to imitate the taste, texture and mouthfeel of the original products as perfectly as possible with their “fake fish” products. This is a significant challenge in itself, because the complex fibrous texture of animal muscle tissue is very difficult to create with plant-based raw materials, even with technical aids. This is why the range of vegan seafood products is currently still limited mostly to minced type fish alternatives such as fish fingers or fishcakes. Achieving the right scaling of manufacturing processing is at least as difficult, since industrial quantities must be produced to achieve the desired success on the market. It remains to be seen whether the capacity of 3D printers, which some producers are currently using, will actually be sufficient. This does not discourage the high-flying ambitions of the pioneers in this area, however. Some even claim to be “rethinking animal food”, “revolutionising the food sector” and thus “making the world more sustainable and a little bit greener”.
When it comes to vegan replacements for shrimp, companies from the USA and Asia such as New Wave Foods, Shiok Meats or The Plant-Based Seafood currently seem to have the technological advantage. But the European companies are catching up, not least thanks to industry leaders like Nestlé or Frosta. In order to be successful on the market in the long term, plant-based alternatives to fish, meat, milk, cheese or delicatessen products must offer consumers a familiar taste experience and the usual bite. Texture and microbiology, allergenic potential, aromas and nutritional profile, complete expertise in the production process – everything must be right for a halfway authentic “fake fish” to be produced at the end. However, whether this must really be the case is a topic of controversy even among vegans. Why should a vegan product imitate the form, texture and taste of something that you really do not want to eat any more? Perhaps this is the reason why some manufacturers are for the first time saving themselves the cost and effort of trying to produce a type of fish surrogate with many ingredients and processing steps. The abandonment of this approach is justified by the claim that many consumers do not like the taste of fish anyway. In contrast,others do not reject this goal and are seriously attempting to create a fish aroma that is as authentic as possible with seaweed and seaweed extracts.
Fish is naturally healthier
A purely plant-based diet is of course possible in principle, but with vegan fish, manufacturers are finding it difficult to offer consumers the nutrients and health advantages that are naturally present in fish that ultimately make it advisable to eat. There are hardly any vegan products that do not have thickening agents, acidity regulators, aromas, and sometimes also preservatives. Many ingredients lists resemble short novels. Product tests by the German consumer organisation Verbraucherzentrale Hessen (Consumer Advice Centre Hessen) show that alternative products not only contain less protein than real fish, but it is often of worse quality. Most significantly, the important essential amino acids are often lacking. Peas, lentils or beans, soya, lupin and wheat or mushrooms and protein-rich vegetable varieties such as cabbage are not a complete alternative when it comes to their amino acid profile. Carrots are healthy, but cannot replace oily marine fish. This primarily applies to omega-3 fatty acids as well as vitamin B12, which are present in high quantities in many fish species. The omega-3 fatty acids in flaxseed, rapeseed, hemp or walnut oil contain mainly linolenic and alpha-linolenic acids, which can only be converted into the high-quality DHAs and EPAs that are typically present in fish to a very limited extent. However, this problem can be solved with microalgae and algal oils (e.g. with omega-3-rich schizochytrium algae). This has the disadvantage that microalgae cultures are energy-intensive and therefore expensive. Another point of criticism is the high level of processing of the isolates and extracts from algae.
In addition to the many ingredients, the high level of processing for vegan alternatives is one of the most common points of criticism from product testers. However, manufacturers can rarely avoid this if they want their products to have textures and aromas similar to fish. However, food scientists warn that highly processed foods with many ingredients are less recommended for a balanced diet. Many vegans, who are usually quite well versed in nutritional matters, try to eat natural food that is processed as little as possible, just as our grandparents once ate. Vitamins, minerals and trace elements usually present no issue with a purely plant-based diet. The only vitamins that can present difficulties are vitamins D and B12, because they are almost exclusively present in animal food. Potential iodine deficiency can be avoided by using iodised table salt or seaweeds, regardless of the type of seaweed in vegan products: hijiki, nori, wakame or kombu. Seaweeds not only provide the desired fish taste, they also provide the so-called umami flavour that makes dishes particularly full-bodied.
The number of vegan products is growing steadily
However, there are also vegan fish alternative products for which the “fishy” taste is reproduced with synthetic aromas created in the laboratory. Gelling and thickening agents are frequently used as adhesive for holding vegan products together. These include methylcellulose, a binding agent obtained from plants that is thought to damage intestinal mucosa and cause inflammation if consumed regularly. Vegan products can also contain various types of sugars and stabilisers that lower the nutritional value of these fish alternatives. Whether manufacturers, with their cocktails of ingredients, are actually succeeding in imitating the authentic taste of fish and seafood depends, of course, on subjective sensory impressions, expectations and the willingness of consumers to accept such alternatives. Still, a considerable selection of vegan fish and seafood products is already available to them and it is becoming ever wider: vegan salmon made from carrots, tuna made from tomatoes, soya or seitan, fish stock made from dried mushrooms and seaweed, fish fingers and fish fillets made from tofu, vegan Bismarck herring based on aubergine, fishcakes made from jackfruit, calamari made from king trumpet mushrooms, herring salad based on beetroot, fried aubergine, apple, nori and pickled gherkins, vegan jumbo prawns and scampi made from yam root, lobster made from tofu, prawns made from peas, seaweed and konjac root or artichokes and palm hearts. Vegan caviar based on seaweed has already been available for some time. It is now even sold by IKEA.
Plant-based alternatives are now available even for challenging products such as scallops or smoked dogfish. Manufacturers are very imaginative when it comes to giving their products typical fish features. They use soya or wheat protein, black salsify, jackfruit, cauliflower, borlotti beans, hempseed protein and celery as raw materials, to name just a few. Curdlan gel, a carbohydrate formed by bacteria, glucomanna, a starchy substance from the konjac root, trehalose made from seaweed and tapioca starch made from manioc root are used. Not all of these are equally sustainable, sometimes the promised climate neutrality can only be “bought” through CO2-offsetting and afforestation projects. Some manufacturers are not quite so creative when naming and marketing their products as they are with the raw materials used. Most have gone with V, which serves as a kind of synonym for vegan and vegetarian. The vegan shelves of retail outlets in Germany are filled with Vantastic Visch, BackVisch, Visch & Chips and Vischburgers, Veganelen, NoVish-Burgers and Thun-Vish.
Consumers increasingly willing to purchase
There is no doubt about it – vegan fish alternatives are on the rise and are preparing to conquer the mainstream. It is a promising market, in which both well-known large food corporations as well as small startups – some with amusing company names such as Lord of Tofu or Keine Mærchen (No Fairytale)– are vigorously competing. Sometimes they even work together, as in the cooperation between the Dutch company Novish, founded in 2019, with the Nordsee restaurant chain. The products of large food producers, such as Garden Gourmet Thun-Visch from Nestlé, are, however, viewed with suspicion by dedicated hard-core vegans and often even rejected. More out of principle, because they generally distrust Nestlé, than for taste reasons, since more tolerant vegans attest that Thun-Visch can hold its own against real tuna from a tin quite well. A quick look at the internet shows that consumers do not hold back in their verdicts about vegan products. In addition to enthusiastic praise (“fantastic”, “extremely tasty”, “really great”), there are also criticisms, some modest, but some quite severe. Examples of criticisms include that some ingredients are not organic, the smell is overpoweringly fishy or reminds them of menthol sweets, for some the consistency is too firm, too soft, somewhat jelly-like or even slimy and mushy. Some say that one tuna alternative reminds them of vegan chicken, others even compare carrot smoked salmon with carrot salad, one plant-based fish fingers product is said to taste like deep-fried vegetables, leeks in particular.
Clearly, some vegetarians and vegans have very high standards for alternative products. A particularly frequent complaint is that the taste bears little or no resemblance to the original. This is surprising, however, as anyone who voluntarily bites into tofu lobster or carrot smoked salmon purely for reasons of conscience should really know what awaits them and what they are letting themselves in for. And the question presents itself as to which groups of consumers are really turning to vegetarian or vegan retail alternatives to animal food, including fish and seafood products. In its annual Food Report for 2021, the German Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture provided some initial answers. Clearly, curiosity is one of the main motivations, as 71 percent of consumers stated that they bought vegetarian or vegan alternatives for this reason alone. Animal welfare reasons were the decisive ones for purchasing for 59 percent of people, and protecting the climate and environment for 54 percent. Almost one third of consumers put plant-based alternatives in their trolleys on a regular or frequent basis. Another 13 percent have bought them at least once. Younger groups of consumers (47 percent of 14 to 29 year-olds, 38 percent of 30 to 44 year-olds) buy such products particularly frequently and location is also important. The bigger the city, the larger the proportion of consumers that regularly buy vegetarian or vegan products. In small towns with less than 5,000 inhabitants, this number is 20 percent on average, but for large cities with more than 500,000 inhabitants the proportion is 46 percent. There is a simple rule of thumb that in urban regions with generally younger customers, interest in vegan products will be greater than in rural regions with an older customer base.
No discernible health advantages
Vegan fish alternatives require buyers to make a significant financial sacrifice. None of the common vegetarian or vegan fish replacement products is currently being sold for a lower retail price than the animal product original. Are vegan alternatives then at least healthier and do they keep well, as manufacturers often confidently promise? A look at the ingredients list offers some orientation, since many beneficial substances contained naturally in real fish must be added to plant-based products with supplements such as amino acids, fatty acids, seaweeds or oils. Verbraucherzentrale Hamburg (Consumer Advice Centre Hamburg) put some vegan fish products from supermarkets on the test bench.
What the Verbraucherzentrale (Consumer Advice Centre) testers found undesirable and criticised was primarily the fact that some raw materials came from very distant regions, which negatively affected the sustainability of the products. The bioavailability of fish protein is higher than that of plant-based protein sources. Many vegan products contain little omega-3, but far more omega-6 fatty acids, which are thought to increase inflammation. This unfavourable relationship is a consequence of the preferred use of sunflower oil, which is cheaper than expensive olive oil or flaxseed oil. Aroma additives in vegan products are frequently criticised, as is the use of carrageen (e.g. in Vegafit Vischstäbchen) which the Verbraucherzentrale (Consumer Advice Centre) found to be concerning in large amounts. The above-average salt content was viewed particularly negatively, as almost all vegan products are clearly above the recommended nutritional guidelines.
The final evaluation for plant-based fish and seafood products is therefore patchy, even for vegetarians and vegans. Generally, most of them can live with this, but enthusiasm is limited. Many hope for new products that taste better. The gap between expectation and disappointment was described memorably by Megan Mayhew Bergman (The Guardian, 2 Jan. 2021), who herself is part of the target market for vegetarian seafood. When she served her daughter vegan tuna on toast, she complained: “Oh Mom, please don’t make us eat that”. Even Megan herself wasn’t convinced by this type of product – yet.mk