Next food frontier : Fish that never swam. Plant based substitutes and laboratory cultures crop-up in restaurants.

The chef Tsang Chiu King is preparing a subtle-but-significant change to his menu : He's replacing the fish in some dishes with a plant-based alternative.

''Its flavor is light and bland and the texture, like grouper, is a bit tougher,'' Mr. Tsang said, referring to the alternative fish varieties he has been testing at Ming Court Wanchai, a restaurant in Hong Kong. To intensify the flavor, he adds ingredients like dates and goji berries.

Plant-based products have been breaking into the foodie mainstream in the United States, after years in which vegan burgers and milk alternatives hovered on the market's periphery.

That is aptly because more companies are focusing on omnivores who seek to reduce the amount of meat they eat, rather than forswear it altogether.

Now, as sophisticated fish alternatives begin to attract investment and land at restaurants in the United States and beyond, people who track the fishless fish sector say that it could be on the cusp of significant growth.

One reason, they say, is that consumers in rich countries are becoming more aware of the seafood industry's environmental problems, including overfishing and the health risks of some seafood. Another is that today's plant based start-ups do a better job of approximating fish flavor and texture than earlier ones did - an important consideration for non-vegetarians.

'' This isn't your grandfather's alternative fish stick,'' said Joshua Katz, an analyst at the consulting firm  McKinsey who has studied the alt protein industry.

There are already a number of people already looking at alternative hamburgers,'' he added. ''You might actually say, ' I should work on something else.' and seafood is still a massive market with compelling reasons to work on it.''


People who scale back their consumption of  animal proteins for environmental reasons often stop eating red meat, which requires enormous amounts of land and water to cultivate and belches a lot of methane as a byproduct.

But alt-fish advocates say that seafood also comes with environmental problems. Unsustainable fishing practices have decimated fisheries in recent decades, a problem both for biodiversity and the millions of people who depend on the sea for income and food.

''It's simply a smarter way to make seafood,'' said  Mirte Gosker, the acting managing director of the  Good Food Institute Asia Pacific, a nonprofit advocacy that promotes alternative proteins. '' Full stop.''

So far plant-based seafood products in the United States account for only 0.1 percent of the country's seafood sales, compared with 1.4 percent of the U.S. meat market occupied by plant-based meat alternatives, according to the Good Food Institute.

But  alt-seafood ventures worldwide received at least $83 million from investors in 2020, compared with $1 million three years earlier, according to the institute's data.

As of this June, 83 companies were producing alt-seafood products around the world, a nearly three-fold rise since 2017.

All but 18 of those 83 companies focus on plant-based products. Six others, including a French start-up that makes imitation smoked salmon from microalgae, specializes in protein derived from fermentation. A dozen others are developing lab-grown seafood, which is not yet commercially available in any country.


Impossible Foods, a dominant force in the alternative protein industry, has been developing fishless fish project for years. Jessica Appel, a spokeswoman for the company, said that it was not yet manufacturing alternative fish products.

Other big companies are. The California seafood giant Bumble Bee Foods, for instance, said last year that it was teaming with up with Good Catch, a plant-based seafood company in Pennsylvania that sells products like fake fish sticks and crab cakes at Whole Foods and other retailers.

Some start-ups are developing alternative fish protein designed to mimic raw fish.

One of them, Kuleana, sells a plant-based version of sushi-grade tuna at markets in Los Angeles and nationally through the Poke Bar restaurant chain.

Even though breaded fake fish sticks have done well so far, products that try to approximate raw fish will need to improve further, if the industry wants woo non-vegetarians, said Jacek Prus, Kuleana's  chief executive.

''Fundamentally we still need to make the products better,'' he said. ''That's the biggest challenge : How to recreate structure in really, really convincing ways, and mouthfeel?''

EYES ON ASIA : Of the 65 countries currently producing plant-based seafood products, 47 ate outside the United States, according to the Good Food Institute.

People in the industry say the Asia-Pacific region is a logical place to anticipate significant growth, because it consumes more than two-thirds of the world's meals of fish, according to a United Nations estimate.

This important research and  publishing continues to Part 2. The World Students Society thanks authors Mike Ives, Tiffany May and Amy Chang Chien.


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