Following over half a decade of plant-based product launches leading the retail space in many categories, 2022 was the first year of stagnation in sales for plant-based meat alternatives in the US. Some have proclaimed this the end of the plant-based era, claiming "the experiment was unsuccessful" as the iconic Beyond Meat brand struggled to generate profits for the first year since going public. However, while there are certainly issues with some specific brands, there is little evidence that plant-based alternatives are disappearing altogether. In fact, the plant-based alternatives space is ripe with emerging start-ups adapting to the food industry with rapid pace, promising continual innovation for protein alternatives.
Looking to the sea
One such company is Chicago-based Aqua Cultured Foods, co-founded by Anne Palermo and Brittany Chibe. Aqua Cultured Foods is a food tech start-up taking aim at the seafood alternatives market,
a white space for protein alternatives until recently, even though demand for processed seafood is still growing in the US. Using fermentation technologies on fungi, the company can produce a variety of seafood alternatives, some of which Euromonitor International’s Food and Beverage team taste-tested this past May.
Like other emerging brands present at the National Restaurant Show, Aqua Cultured Foods is not targeting the retail space, but rather foodservice. This shift in route to market is evident among many companies adapting to a maturing environment, by working towards the next phase of plant-based expansion. For foodservice, the value proposition is not simply about the relative health of the product, animal welfare or sustainability, it is also about consistency in the supply chain, pricing, and malleability of the products for chefs.
Source: Euromonitor International
Euromonitor International tasted four products; starting with a minced shrimp dumpling (shown at the top of the picture above), showcasing the product's application with heat; scallop crudo, highlighting the ability to adapt the fungi's texture to imitate raw seafood; a tuna maki roll to test the feel and texture of a whole cut imitation; and lastly a spicy tuna roll, allowing appreciation of the flavouring and feel of a grounded tuna alternative. Amongst the Food and Beverage Team, the clear winner was the spicy tuna roll, with all agreeing it was the firm favourite.
Beyond tasting: The next phase
Aqua Cultured Foods has an advantage over some rivals; because the fermented product is fungi, scaling up production is not as complex as with precision and biomass fermentation, allowing for a short runway in scaling up or down. In addition, in discussing the colouring of the tuna, it became apparent that this can be adapted for any client. So those wanting a deeper or lighter colour can work with Aqua Cultured Foods for a signature cut, adding personalisation to the foodservice experience and to foodservice brands. Finally, co-founders Anne and Brittany were clear about the value fungi-based seafood has to the supply chain, with greater shelf-life longevity than that of traditional seafood.
Most importantly, this was a look at the next phase of plant-based meat and seafood substitutes. It brings additional value to the established propositions of health, sustainability, and animal welfare for consumers. It brings supply chain solutions, personalisation and consistency to chefs and foodservice brands. It also brings environmentally-friendly credentials, making seafood substitutes an obvious addition to future menus.
Read more about protein alternatives in our report, Away From Animals: Plant-Based, Cell-Cultured and More.