The fish and seafood market is ripe for change. While many consumers want to eat more fish because they view it as healthier than (red) meat, they are simultaneously being deterred from doing so by concerns about sustainability and overfishing. The trends explain the growing interest in fish substitutes.
Worries about animal welfare, climate change and health are driving some consumers to reduce their meat consumption and to eat more fish. In Italy and Spain, 82% of consumers have either reduced their meat consumption or stopped eating it altogether over the past five years. Fish is filling the gap. In Italy, 40% of people plan to eat more fish, compared to 36% of consumers in Spain.
Increasing fish consumption will create its own problems—and consumers are increasingly aware of the harms caused by overfishing. The documentary Seaspiracy was among the most watched films on Netflix around the world on its release in 2021 and, while experts disputed some of the statistics it presented, its eye-catching claims shaped public opinion and led many viewers to consider stopping eating fish.
Aquaculture offers a way around overfishing but, as Seaspiracy states, cultivated fish has its own problems. Fish farming depends on antibiotics to combat infectious diseases, making aquaculture a driver of the emergence of drug-resistant pathogens. Multiple studies have found consumers have concerns about the use of antibiotics in aquaculture and the impact of fish farms on the environment.
The forces unleashed by Seaspiracy have primed the public for new, sustainable alternatives to fish. The era of plant-based seafood alternatives is beginning—and forward-thinking companies are creating the market by investing in technologies and ingredients that enable sustainable and ethical seafood.
Salmon is a major opportunity for the vegan fish sector. In the European Union, salmon is the second most eaten fish by weight, with the 2.36kg that each person consumed, on average, in 2019 second only to tuna. Most, 81%, of the salmon consumed in the EU that year was farmed.
Wild and farmed salmon are both associated with environmental concerns. A study commissioned by the campaigning organisation Changing Markets Foundation found that about 100 million farmed salmon escaped or died from 2010 to 2019, and estimated that the cost of pollution of seas and freshwater lakes, damage to wild salmon stocks and biodiversity, and the generation of carbon dioxide emissions was $14.5 billion (€13.3 billion) over the same period.
With wild salmon stocks currently at risk along much of Europe’s North Atlantic coastline, switching from aquaculture to fishing would have catastrophic consequences and fail to sustainably meet demand. To add to the problems, contaminants such as microplastics have been found in farmed and wild salmon.
The statistics deliver a clear message: neither wild nor farmed salmon can sustainably meet demand.
Plant-based protein is now equipped to sustainably meet demand for salmon. While plant-based meat has already captured a share of the animal protein market, alternatives to fish initially fell short of the taste, texture and aroma that consumers demand. The shortcomings meant that, with many consumers prioritising sensory attributes over sustainability, fish analogues failed to drive repeat purchases.
NEXTERA®, Solina’s dedicated new protein food division, applied its expertise in new protein foods to the problem. Leveraging a heritage in animal proteins, the company’s multi-disciplinary team of application technologists, engineers, scientists, dieticians, culinary chefs and other experts, combined with a unique state-of-the-art New Protein Food Research Centre, worked to understand what consumers want from salmon and apply a range of technologies and ingredients to the development of alternatives that meet their expectations.
The initiative has resulted in a solution that has the desirable pink, moist texture of salmon fish flakes. In a sensory panel, vegan salmon fingers made from the plant-based protein performed comparably to the gold standard fish in terms of smell intensity, salmon taste, crunchiness, firmness, juiciness, fattiness and chewiness. The solution is high in protein and fibre, low in saturated fats and has a Nutri-score of A.
Through the R&D project, NEXTERA® has cleared the key barrier to uptake of plant-based fish. Surveys show consumers recognise the sustainability issues associated with aquaculture and fishing and want to reduce their consumption of animal proteins, but are deterred from making the switch to vegan alternatives because of doubts about taste and texture, and also nutrition. Now, NEXTERA® can answer those doubts.
The plant-based protein can be used to make salmon fingers, coated burgers, balls or croquettes. Unlike the animal protein, the vegan salmon is easy to prepare and free from the bones that put some people off fish. The vegan salmon is suitable for pan frying from frozen, deep frying and oven baking. The ability to deep fry the protein is a significant advance, which is highly convenient for Quick Service Restaurants and in-home consumption, because the fat content of real salmon prohibits that cooking method.
However it is prepared, the vegan protein has the same flaky, light orange or pink appearance and taste, texture and mouthfeel as farmed and wild salmon.
Producing the protein locally reduces the carbon footprint compared to imported salmon, and addresses concerns about contamination because manufacture happens in a controlled environment. Across key sensory attributes, nutrition and sustainability, the vegan solution is at least a match for salmon fish.
Sustainable seafood companies have a window of opportunity for establishing plant-based salmon in consumers’ diets. The window was opened by changes in the price of salmon. Because the price of farmed salmon is tied to spending on feed and other factors that can fluctuate significantly, manufacturers must contend with steep rises in what they pay for fish.
From the start of 2021 to March 2023, the price of a kilo of fresh Norwegian salmon jumped by 137%. The price increased by 33% over the first nine weeks of 2023 alone. At a time when household budgets are under pressure, the price increases could put the cost of salmon beyond the reach of many people. The price pressures have created an opportunity for manufacturers of affordable alternatives to capture market share.
With farmed salmon prices at record highs, the price of the plant-based protein is highly competitive. The situation creates an opportunity for manufacturers to launch products that match the sensory and nutritional profiles of salmon at an attractive price point. Because plant-based salmon is complementary to products based on white fish, companies can launch the products without potentially cannibalising existing lines.
NEXTERA® is striving to unlock more opportunities for manufacturers by creating best-in-class new protein foods. The company’s leadership of the sector is underpinned by an agnostic approach to raw materials and technologies, which frees it to choose the optimal ingredients and methods for each project.
In addition to salmon, NEXTERA® experts have developed a wide range of blends, flavours and functional solutions for vegan white fish, including the first real fibrillated vegan tuna, vegan surimi, vegan fish fillet and more. Those products are supported by a wide range of delicious, vegan sauces for fish and seafood substitutes.
By aligning the sensory profiles of plant-based products with the gold standard fish proteins, NEXTERA® is ushering a new, more sustainable and equally delicious era of vegan seafood alternatives.
Interested? Contact our experts to request a sample for your market.
Solina is helping manufacturers seize the near and long-term reformulation and NPD opportunities. With R&D teams at more than 30 centres across Europe and North America and as a global producer of savoury ingredient solutions, we have the local knowledge and culinary and technical expertise and infrastructure to help create foods adapted for the current inflationary period and the growth opportunities that will follow.