What’s the deal with fake fish?

What’s the deal with fake fish?

It's not just fake meat that's popular, fake fish is too. With more people than ever turning vegan, we investigate the appeal (or not) of plant-based fish

Netflix's hit anti-fishing documentary Seaspiracy shocked many people into rethinking their seafood consumption.

Some marine scientists dispute the film's claims that there is no such thing as a sustainable fishing industry and we could run out of fish in 2048. But there is no denying the film's impact—with many viewers cutting down on fish or cutting it out altogether—or its timing, as vegan food products arrive on supermarket shelves mimicking dishes from fish and chips to canned tuna.

Human beings eat a lot of fish. Globally, seafood is a $500 billion industry and consumption has more than doubled in the last half a century. But the oceans are not an unlimited resource, and seafood consumers are increasingly concerned about overfishing, marine pollution, heavy metals, micro plastics and the global fishing industry's poor human rights record.

With the rise of “flexitarianism” or casual vegetarianism, occasional meat eaters are buying plant-based substitutes for health and environmental reasons. Meat-free meat is now big business.

Is fish-free fish poised to follow? Could pseudo-seafood go mainstream?

Fake fish currently accounts for only about one per cent of the entire alt-meat industry. But what began as a tiny cottage industry serving a niche market is expanding rapidly.

In 2018, London's Sutton & Sons became the first UK chippy to offer vegan fish and chips, substituting banana blossom for the trademark British dish.

Marinated in seaweed and samphire then deep fried and battered, the flower at the end of a cluster of bananas—commonly used in South East Asian cuisine—passes for a fillet of fake hake or er, cod cod and has become a popular vegan substitute.

Since then, the West has seen a surge in demand for meat-free and fish-free foodstuffs. And customers now have a wider choice than ever before. In 2017, only 29 companies in the world produced alternative seafood products.

Now there are more than 80 with seafood giants and multinationals moving in to stake out their territory. Birds Eye introduced Fishless Fingers in June 2021 less than a year after Nestlé, the world's largest food company, launched its first alt-fish product, tuna alternative Vuna.

"Now there are more than 80 with seafood giants and multinationals moving in to stake out their territory"

Most of the mock marine life on sale now is vegetable or fungi-based. Seafoods' unique structures and distinctive flavours are difficult to veganise convincingly.

But by experimenting with new recipes and technologies, it is possible to simulate its tastes and textures with varying degrees of success. Breaded and fried products like fish fingers and scampi are easier to approximate than a delicate, flaky fillet.

Much of the innovation involves repurposing plants in unexpected ways. Turning tomatoes into “tuna”, for instance. Ahimi, made by US firm Ocean Hugger Food and Tunato, developed by Spanish startup Mimic Seafood are tomato-based sashimi substitutes.

Meanwhile California's Sophie’s Kitchen uses a fibrous Asian root vegetable called konjac to create ersatz tuna, French manufacturer Odontella SAS offers artificial smoked salmon concocted from algae and peas and Swedish retailer Ikea sells vegan caviar made from kelp.

Seaweed, tofu, aubergine and legumes can all be pressed into service. But fake fish sinks or swim on the strength of its flavour. Stand-ins must taste good enough to persuade seafood-lovers to, as one veggie seafood firm's catchy slogan puts it “Give fish the finger.”

We tried a small sample of faux fish products available now, starting with a konjac-based vegan salmon made by London company Ima—as featured in Seaspiracy and sold in Selfridges. It tastes less fishy than the real deal but absorbs the strong flavours of wasabi, ginger and soy sauce well and the texture and colour are spot on.

Next up were some counterfeit calamari rings, courtesy of Thailand's vegan brand Nature's Charm. Made from mushroom, they have the correct chewy consistency and, canned in a seaweed marinade, carry a faint taste of the sea. Nature's Charm also offers “scallops” made from the same fungi.

Aldi's Plant Menu Fish-Free Fingers are breaded wheat protein oblongs that look identical to fish fingers, with a similar texture but not much taste.

Most fake fish products are unlikely to fool anyone, let alone a fish aficionado, but complemented by condiments, come close enough. Apart, that is, from American firm Good Catch's Fish-Free Tuna Style Flakes.

Made from pea, soy, chickpea, lentil and beans, these are advertised as a “craveworthy” substitute for salads, sandwiches and tuna melts, I found them heaveworthy. No matter how much lemon and mayonnaise I smothered on, these grey, putty-like lumps smelled and tasted like no creature that ever swam in any sea.

"No matter how much lemon and mayonnaise I smothered on, these grey, putty-like lumps smelled and tasted like no creature that ever swam in any sea"

For some consumers, of course, only genuine fish flesh will do. But even for them, technology promises to offer an ocean-friendly alternative. Laboratory-grown fish meat, cultivated in a vessel called a bioreactor, promises the “real” thing without animal cruelty or the environmental toll of industrial fishing.

Cellular agriculture companies such as Wildtype, Finless Foods, and BlueNalu are already producing lab-grown salmon, bluefin tuna, shrimp, lobster and crab. But it's a slow, expensive process and businesses are still figuring out how to produce seafood profitably. Until they do, a little compromise by a lot of people could make a big difference.

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