Skip to main content

Faux fish the next frontier in plant-based alternatives

Seafood alternatives are becoming more mainstream and can address both dietary and environmental concerns
Shutterstock/Michel Szabo

The arrival of plant-based meats at chains including A&W and Tim Hortons is just the first step towards mainstream sustainable eating for Blair Bullus.

The Vancouver flexitarian and businessman has his eye on the next frontier: Fish and seafood alternatives that--like Beyond Burger and Impossible Foods--mimic the look and taste of the real thing for pescatarians not quite ready to give up sashimi.

It's still a nascent movement, but Bullus points to faux experiments that have popped up in recent years, ranging from chickpea-based "tuna" to carefully carved smoked carrot "salmon."

READ: Plant protein producers aim for mainstream with new research, investments

Bullus' company Top Tier Foods Inc. actually sells quinoa, including an especially sticky variety designed to replace rice in vegan sushi rolls that otherwise don't have the protein and omega-3 fatty acids of fish.

It's available at the Quebec City-based chain Yuzu Sushi where customers can pair it with faux ahi tuna--a coral-red facsimile carved out of Roma tomatoes. Known as Ahimi, it's made by New York's Ocean Hugger Foods. Ocean Hugger's website says it transforms the tomato through a "proprietary process" that includes seasoning with soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar. The company also has an eggplant-based alternative to eel and is developing a carrot-based alternative to salmon.

Bullus doesn't expect to fool sushi eaters with the combination, but he hopes it can at least assuage any nutritional and environmental concerns by those who ditch fish.

"It's just becoming easier to make those decisions so you don't necessarily have to give up sushi or you don't have to necessarily give up your salmon and avocado roll," Bullus says.

"You're going to have an alternative that has the same mouth-feel as what you're used to."

Whether the average omnivore is ready to give up their salmon and shrimp has yet to really be tested.

Efforts to produce realistic sushi-grade varieties are dwarfed by the research, funding and marketing push behind plant-based and lab-grown beef, says Bruce Friedrich, co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute.

Nevertheless, he says seafood alternatives are just as necessary, describing the environmental impact of commercial fishing as "at least as bad as cattle-ranching" and akin to "the strip-mining of our oceans." He also lambastes aquaculture for its use of antibiotics.

"If these were terrestrial farming practices, people would be horrified," says Friedrich, whose Washington, D.C.-based institute has funded open-sourced research into plant-based projects at the University of Manitoba and University of Guelph, as well as research on lab-grown meat--also known as cell-based meat--at the University of Toronto.

READ: Lab-grown meat companies see opportunity for growth in Canada

"Obviously, you know the link between seafood and human slavery, the pathetically lax regulation of the seafood industry to the degree that you don't even know what you're getting, the amount of mercury and dioxin and lead and other forms of contamination. This is an industry that is ripe for transformation."

Montreal chef Ricardo Larrivee warns that calling something tuna when it's not could backfire if the goal is to convert anyone on the fence.

"If you make faux fish and it's not super-good, then you can have the opposite reaction: 'I tried it, I don't like it, I'll go back to fish,'" Larrivee says.

He suggests our attachment to seafood is at least partly psychological, and that the key to success is the right texture in its replacement.

"In the occidental way of cooking, if there's not the meat or the fish part, we always feel like we only had sides," says Larrivee. "It's in our head, it's the way we think."

READ: Is lab-grown dairy the next food frontier?

For Friedrich, education only goes so far. Despite undeniable health and eco-concerns, he doubts most meat and fish eaters would ever go vegetarian without affordable alternatives.

"We really just need to change the meat instead of changing human nature," says Friedrich. "That's the focus of these alternatives: Let's give people everything that they like about meat but let's produce it in a far more efficient and less-damaging way."

Much of the innovation is occurring in the United States, where cell-based producers Finless Foods, Wild Type and Blue Nalu are experimenting with lab-grown salmon and tuna, and plant-based companies include Good Catch, Ocean Hugger, and New Wave Foods.

Given the state of our oceans, Friedrich suggests the survival of the planet may depend on these pant-based alternatives.

"This is how we save the world, essentially."

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds