In 2020, sales of plant-based seafood in the United States grew 23%, and in the first half of 2021, $116 million was invested in the category.
Several things are driving the growth, said Brittany Chibe, chief growth officer and co-founder of Chicago-based startup Aqua Cultured Foods.
“There’s more acceptance of the environmental toll of the mainstream seafood supply chain, conventional fishing, and fish farming,” Chibe said. “Wild seafood stocks are expected to be depleted by 2048, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says more than 80% of the world’s fish stocks are ‘fully exploited or overexploited.’”
At the same time, she added, the global demand for seafood is increasing, and expected to rise by 30%.
“With the world’s population expected to hit 10 billion by 2050, it’s obvious to most people that traditional agri- and aquaculture can’t keep up.”
Overfishing and sustainability concerns are big drivers behind growth in the plant-based seafood category, agreed Jill Dexter, vice president and general manager of Richmond, British Columbia-based Gardein, a division of Conagra.
When consumers choose plant-based seafood, she said, they’re reducing consumption of traditional seafood, helping to ensure that fish populations remain at sustainable levels.
Gardein has two plant-based seafood products marketed at retail: f’sh fillets and mini cr’b cakes.
“Both products have performed well for us, especially our f’sh fillets, which are No.1 in dollar sales for the plant-based fish alternative SKU,” Dexter said, citing IRI data.
Both are available in resealable freezer bags. The f’sh fillets are sold in a 10.1 oz. bag and the mini cr’b cakes in an 8.8 oz. bag.
“Our shopper marketing teams works closely with individual customers on programs to help build sales across the Gardein portfolio,” Dexter said. “The Lenten time frame provides a seasonal opportunity for us as more consumers seek our fish in general.”
Christine Mei, CEO of Heath, Ohio-based Gathered Foods, makers of Good Catch plant-based seafood, continues to see more and more consumers making the move to a flexitarian diet, exploring plant-based eating and being more conscious of their food choices.
“This shift has certainly impacted the plant-based seafood sector, which is growing at a rapid pace, with new products hitting the market each year,” Mei said. “With that excitement, consumers are constantly looking for new and delicious solutions at their favorite stores.”
Good Catch’s goal, she said, is to meet that demand by launching innovative products and partnering with a diverse group of retailers to make its products available to consumers throughout the country.
“It’s about making something that tastes good, does good, and leaves more fish in the sea.”
Good Catch currently offers nine products at grocery retail, including Plant-Based Tuna in Naked in Water, Mediterranean and Oil & Herbs; a frozen line of entrees and appetizers including Plant-Based Classic Fish Burger, Plant-Based Thai Fish Cake and Plant-Based New England Style Crab Cakes; and its new breaded line, which includes Plant-Based Breaded Fish Fillets, Plant-Based Breaded Fish Sticks and Plant-Based Breaded Crab Cakes.
Whole Foods and Sprouts Farmers Market are among the many retailers that stock the company’s plant-based products.
Good Catch’s newest product, Plant-Based Salmon Burgers, debuted on retail shelves in February.
New player in the game
Aqua Cultured Foods announced in 2021 its plans to begin rolling out plant-based seafood products in 2022.
That’s still the plan, Chibe said. Aqua Cultured will test the waters first with its calamari alternatives. Popcorn shrimp and whole-muscle cut fish filets will follow later in the year.
Aqua Cultured will bring something new to the plant-based seafood category, Chibe said.
Most plant-based seafood products are based on starches. This gives it a mouthfeel, she said, that’s somewhat similar to seafood, but it lacks nutrients, mainly protein, that consumers expect from a center-of-the-plate food.
Other companies use legume-based ingredients like pea or soy protein isolates to provide those nutrients. But that often adds “off” flavors that have to be masked with additives like sodium.
On top of that, both of those options, Chibe said, are highly processed.
“We can avoid both of these issues with fermentation-based seafood,” she said. “It’s a whole, unprocessed mycoprotein with the nutritional value consumers want, plus a realistic texture. And it’s very resource-efficient and affordable to produce. Think of it as plant-based 2.0.”
Fortunately for newcomers to plant-based seafood, like Aqua Culture, the category is still “very much a white space,” Chibe said.
There are no products Aqua Cultured is aware of, she said, that have put texture, taste and nutrition together in the same product.
“We expect to be the first to deliver on all three. The bar is very, very high for seafood alternatives, higher than other alt-proteins like burgers or nuggets.”
Window for growth
The present-day retail market provides a window of growth for plant-based seafood that could shrink when new, rival technologies enter the picture, Chibe said.
“Cultured [or cell-based] seafood is still in its infancy, and likely a few years away from hitting the market, especially considering regulatory hurdles. So there’s an opportunity for us to become established well in advance of the commercial availability of cultured seafood.”
In that window of opportunity, companies like Aqua Cultured have a great opportunity, Chibe said, to generate huge growth in the category.
“We believe that, ultimately, there will be more acceptance of seafood alternatives than even plant-based meat or dairy products. There’s a health halo around seafood, even though it’s loaded with microplastics, mercury, antibiotics, PCBs, parasites, and of course a high risk of foodborne illness.”
Plant-based seafood companies, she said, can deliver a product free of these contaminants that is demonstrably healthier, with the same taste and performance as traditional seafood. And if it costs less, even better, which Aqua Cultured believes it can achieve once the company scales up.
While Gardein doesn’t have any immediate plans to expand its plant-based seafood roster at retail, the company will be releasing its Fiscal 2023 line of innovation soon, and Dexter said Gardein is always evaluating the space for new opportunities.
The company is certainly bullish on plant-based in general. In 2021, it rolled out its Ultimate Plant-based Chick’n line. The line includes fillets, nuggets and tenders, and the tenders and filets have become our top two performing SKUs across all of Gardein.
The diversity of Gardein’s line is among the strongest in plant-based foods, Dexter said. In addition to plant-based seafood and chicken, Gardein offers plant-based alternatives to beef, pork and turkey.
Fans of Gardein’s other plant-based proteins should definitely try its plant-based seafood, she said.
“And If seafood is their entry point, we hope they’ll explore the other offerings. We believe those who are eating plant-based shouldn’t be restricted by a lack of choices, and our product line reflects that sentiment.”
As a brand focused on culinary innovation, Good Catch is constantly challenging itself to find new ways to expand its offerings, Mei said.
Since the launch of its first plant-based tuna flake product, for instance, Good Catch has developed three new plant-based seafood formats: whitefish, crab and salmon.
“We’re proud to say that our products have sold incredibly well at grocery retail, with our breaded line being among the top sellers. Our Plant-Based Breaded Fish Fillets, Plant-Based Breaded Fish Sticks and Plant-Based Breaded Crab Cakes have been a big hit through our partnership with Sprouts.”
Because of that culinary focus, Good Catch products evoke the experience of eating real seafood through exceptional taste and texture, Mei said. The company’s six-legume blend (peas, chickpeas, lentils, soy, fava beans, and navy beans) creates a distinct texture, and the company uses natural flavorings for the authentic seafood taste.