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Replicating Nutrition in Plant-Based Fish, Seafood and Eggs

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Sustainability considerations, along with tremendous plant-based momentum, are driving innovation in plant-based versions of animal protein foods. Dairy was first, followed by meat, and now fish and eggs. Replication of taste and texture at an acceptable price point are top priorities. But nutrition also is a consideration, especially when trying to replicate nutrient-rich foods such as fish and eggs that have unique health benefits.  

Consumer Awareness 

Plant-based seafood is relatively new. As such, its growth potential is attractive. In surveys conducted by Chicago-based foodservice market researcher Datassential, nearly half of consumers surveyed in the US responded that they are familiar with plant-based seafood. A sizeable subset of younger consumers, about one-quarter, were both interested in plant-based fish and seafood and find the concept appealing. However, plant-based seafood appears on few restaurant menus and only a small percentage of those surveyed report eating it.  

Plant-based eggs likewise are gaining traction. A 2022 Data Bridge Market Research survey predicts that the global alt-egg marketplace will grow at a compound annual rate of 28% and reach $11.89 billion by 2029. Baking applications and breakfast foods are attractive areas for innovation. 

Competing with Nutritional Profiles 

Fish, seafood, and eggs present attractive nutrition profiles. As described by Jessica Miller, RDN, LD, nutrition communications manager, Seafood Nutrition Partnership, “vital nutrients in seafood include minerals, vitamins, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids.” Many fish and seafood species have little or no fat; fattier species are rich in omega-3 fats that support heart and brain health. Eggs too provide important nutrients. In addition to their supply of affordably-priced high quality protein, eggs are rich in the B vitamin biotin, the minerals selenium and iodine, and the essential nutrient choline. They are among the few foods that are a natural source of vitamin D, a vitamin of public health concern in the United States.  

Several considerations affect the feasibility of nutrition parity. Consumers often shop based on taste and other sensory features rather than nutrition, as is demonstrated by the retail success of plant-based milks that are low in protein and other dairy milk nutrients. Ingredients that can replicate the sensory features of their animal counterparts typically do not match the nutrient profile of animal-based protein components. Nutrient-rich ingredients may have off flavors, as well as properties that interfere with other ingredients. Nutrition parity also can push cost to an unacceptable level. For now, plant-based fish and seafood products tend to focus on protein and/or omega-3 fatty acids, while plant-based egg products provide protein. 

Pursuit of Protein  

Replication of protein content is a key focus and is likely to capture the attention of consumers. In the Innova Market Insights 2022 Health & Nutrition Survey, over half of consumers surveyed in 11 countries reported being extremely or very interested in protein. Many plant-based fish and seafood products match the protein content of their fish and seafood counterparts. Soy offers high protein quality at an attractive cost and can be shaped into products that resemble the texture of fish and seafood. Soy ingredients vary in their percentage of protein based on whether whole soy, soy protein concentrate, or soy protein isolate is used; the more isolated the protein, the higher the protein concentration and lower the concentration of other nutrients such as carbohydrate, fiber, and fat. Pea protein offers high quality protein and is less likely than soy to cause allergic reactions; disadvantages include its cost and “beany” flavor. Proteins from chickpeas, lentils, fava beans, and navy beans are emerging as protein sources in alt-seafood. Dominant proteins in plant-based eggs include lupin/lupini beans, mung beans, and soy beans. Soy offers the highest quality protein, while the protein in lupin and mung beans is nearly as high quality. 

The Texture Trade-Off 

Several plant-based seafood products are based on konjac, a starch extracted from the root of an Asian tuber. Consumers may be familiar with konjac as the main ingredient in ‘miracle noodles’, a refrigerated product that is low in both calories and carbohydrates. When hydrated and combined with other ingredients, konjac provides a texture that resembles shrimp. Fish and seafood alternatives made with konjac tend to differ nutritionally from their animal counterparts – less protein and more fiber – as well as from those with a plant protein as a main ingredient. The product ingredient list may include seaweed, algae, gums, and starches for flavor, texture, and gel-forming properties.  

Plant-based egg products currently on the market replicate either whole scrambled eggs or egg yolks. In addition to bean protein, they can contain nutritional yeast for protein, vitamins, and flavor; oils; flavors; and colors. 

OK for Omega-3s 

Many plant-based seafood and fish products are fortified with sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) omega-3 fatty acids have well-established roles in heart health, brain health, and brain development in young children. Omega-3 ingredients include and may appear on the ingredient list as algal oil, algae, fermented algae, or seaweed. Since omega-3s are most abundant in higher fat fish, their addition to alternatives to shrimp and white-flesh fish confers nutrition benefits not found in their animal counterparts. 

What’s Next? 

Precision fermentation and cellular cultivation are attracting start-up funding as next generation technologies for producing plant-based seafood and other alternatives. Precision fermentation currently is being used to generate specific protein and fat ingredients that could be incorporated into an alt-seafood products. Cultivated seafood alternatives will be grown from fish or seafood cells that are bathed in a nutrient-rich substrate in a bioreactor. Funding and development activity is most robust in Singapore, where the first products are expected to enter the marketplace sometime in 2023.  

We may be on the brink of a new protein landscape where consumers can choose easily among original, plant-based, and cultivated products in a way that balances action toward sustainability, nutrition, sensory pleasure, and budget.  

Mindy Hermann
Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN is a food and nutrition communications consultant in metro NY. She enjoys following trends in the food industry and is a frequent contributor to publications such as Today’s Dietitian and The World of Food Ingredients. Mindy also writes trends reports for Innova Market Insights, a global food and beverage market research firm based in Arnhem, Netherlands, as well as articles for professional journals.