From plant-based meat that “bleeds” to milk grown in a lab, fake meats and dairy have come a long way in recent years. But there is another alternative that scientists are training their sights on, one with the most challenging texture to recreate of all: seafood.
Scientists in Copenhagen are fermenting seaweed on fungi to develop the closest substitute for seafood yet, working with Alchemist, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, to meet demand from diners for sustainable plant-based alternatives that are as good as – or better than – the real thing.
Imitating the fibrous texture of seafood is a difficult achieve, and the team are experimenting with growing filamentous fungi, the micro-organisms found in soil that form a mass of intertwining strands, on seaweed, to create a single product that tastes of the sea.
“We scientists are not good at understanding how to make things delicious, and this decides whether people will eat them. There’s a lot we can learn from each other. [Working with chefs] is slowly emerging, but it hasn’t happened so far to the extent that would be needed to end up with products that are really good,” said Dr Leonie Jahn, the microbiologist leading the project.
Seafood alternatives that resemble the real thing have fallen behind the progress made in developing meat-free replicas such as the Impossible Burger, which is designed to “bleed”, and plant-based milks.
Jahn said this was partly because there was less demand, as consumers viewed seafood as healthier and – erroneously – more sustainable, and partly because recreating the texture of fish and seafood was more difficult. “It has these layers, the texture is rather soft but you have some resistance and chewiness, that’s quite difficult to reproduce,” she said.
Her team will use mycelia, root-like fungal structures that resemble yeast. Mycelia are of particular scientific interest at the moment, with researchers exploring applications not just for plant-based meat but also as an alternative to plastic. They will experiment with different fermentation and growth conditions to find out how best to recreate the delicate texture of seafood.
A further challenge arises because seaweed, which will contribute a fishy flavour while also being highly sustainable and nutritious, does not offer ideal growing conditions for mycelium.
Rasmus Munk, the head chef and co-owner of Alchemist, said the restaurant wanted to “change people’s perception of ‘new foods’”. Creating seafood alternatives was important, he said, because “frankly I haven’t found anything on the market right now that I would put on the menu”.
“The ultimate goal is to create a product that is so delicious in its own right, that it is chosen over other foods on the sole criterion of tastiness,” he added.
According to a report from the Good Food Institute, which is funding the project, 2021 was a year of “tremendous growth” for the alternative seafood market, with 18 new companies launching and sales rising at an “astonishing rate”. The report described alternative seafood as a “white space opportunity”, meaning therewas huge untapped consumer demand.
Seren Kell, a science and technology manager at the Good Food Institute Europe, said investment in plant-based seafood was at a much earlier stage than other sustainable protein, but there were “exciting innovations” such as using 3D printing to mimic fish fillets. To accelerate this, she said, “governments need to invest in open-access research and development”.
While lots of UK supermarkets have been launching faux fish ranges to cash in on concerns about overfishing, much of what is offered only tenuously resembles seafood by flavouring tofu or jackfruit.
Jens Møller, who runs the Danish company Cavi·Art, which makes alternative caviar from seaweed pearls, said the higher price of plant-based alternatives was another barrier to going mass market. His company aims to be significantly cheaper than the products it replaces, with a result that 80% of roe served in catering in Denmark uses Cavi·Art caviar instead of the real thing.
“There is no question the market will grow rapidly as the quality of the products increases and the prices decreases. I think there is an increased awareness of the issues of our oceans and that we need to change our ways,” he said.
• This article was amended on 26 June 2022 to clarify that mycelia are root-like fungal structures, rather than “a type of fungus” as an earlier version said.