Plant-based Tuna Set to Save Fisheries Amidst Declining Catches and Growing Demand

When I first opened the can, I caught a whiff of tuna. However, it’s not tuna inside but a tuna alternative made mainly from soybeans.

By Koji Gushiken

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Catches of tuna have been leveling off and cannot keep up with demand.

When I first opened the can, I caught a whiff of tuna. However, it’s not tuna inside but a tuna alternative made mainly from soybeans. When I touched it with chopsticks, I noticed it was a bit stiffer than regular tuna but when I put it in my mouth, I could see it did indeed resemble its taste. Just to compare, I dipped the alternative tuna in the oil of a real tuna can. It tasted even more like tuna.

The product name is “NEXT Tuna 1.0”. It was produced by Next Meats Co., Ltd., a Tokyo-based startup specializing in meat substitutes that use plant-based ingredients such as soybeans. The company, which began researching meat substitutes in 2017 and was incorporated in 2020, currently produces plant-based alternative meat products such as the “NEXT Yakiniku” series, “NEXT Chicken” and “NEXT Gyudon”. NEXT Tuna 1.0 is their first alternative seafood.

The company says the biggest challenge was getting the amount of oil just right. It wanted to use more oil like actual tuna cans, but it faced technical issues. Still, “The taste is pretty close to the real thing. We’ve done what we can for now,” says Ryo Shirai, chairman of the company. The “1.0” at the end of the product name is an indication of the company’s intention to continue improving and enhancing the product.

The product, which comes in a set of 5 cans at 1950 yen (including tax), was launched on October 6, 2021, and all 4000 that were in stock sold out on the day. “I couldn’t believe it was sold out in one day. To be honest, I was really surprised,” Shirai commented. Currently, the company is developing other seafood alternatives such as octopus and squid.

Population Explosion Behind the Development of Alternative Products

In recent years, there has been a lot of media attention on alternative meats that use plant-based ingredients to resemble meat in taste, texture, and appearance, as well as cultured meats grown from animal cells. Now the trend has spilled over to marine products like tuna.

Kazuko Sato, a researcher at Mitsui & Co. Global Strategic Studies Institute, explains that behind this trend is concern for a shortage of meat supply due to global population growth. The world’s population is expected to reach 9.7 billion in 2050 from 7.8 billion in 2020, and some are warning of future meat supply shortages. There is hope that alternative meat and cultured meat will play a role in meeting the ever-growing demand for animal proteins.

“The situation is the same for marine products,” Sato pointed out. “On top of this, demand for marine products is increasing while catches have been leveling off for the last 30 years. Farmed-seafood production has increased, but it will be hard to continue to keep up with the ever-growing demand for seafood given that regions where aquaculture are possible is limited and it comes with issues of marine contamination.

According to Sato, some countries are already selling plant-based seafood alternatives. Cell-cultured seafood is not available yet but development in the area is accelerating globally and she believes that they will be in the market not so far in the future.

“Shishamo” Shortage Gives a Push

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Plant-based alternative marine products have begun to appear on the market in Japan as well, with the NEXT tuna 1.0 being among them.

Azuma Foods Co., Ltd. based in Mie Prefecture develops alternative products for tuna, salmon and squid that use konjac flour as the main ingredient. The products, named “Marude Sakana (just like fish)” can be served raw like sashimi.

The company started developing alternative marine products after poor catch of capelin (known as shishamo in Japan) in Europe. One of the company’s main products is processed shishamo eggs, which is a popular ingredient used in sushi such as gunkanmaki and California rolls.

It used shishamo eggs from Iceland but the Icelandic government decided to ban fishing of capelin in 2019 due to decreasing stocks. As the stocks did not recover, the government extended the ban in 2020. Hence the company took measures such as considering the use of eggs of other fish species and restricting production. Nevertheless, they lost some customers.

“Given this experience, we decided we cannot solely rely on natural resources as we have in the past and decided to develop marine product alternatives” explains Ryota Matsunaga who works in the company’s overseas business division.

The company outsources the production of the series to a food manufacturer in Taiwan that has already developed and sold similar products. It pursued a texture that mimics real seafood by changing the mixing ratio of konjac flour and other ingredients. In addition, it seasoned them so that they can be served as sashimi and carpaccio.

The product’s launch is scheduled for the end of October 2021. Unfortunately, the product was not available at the time of writing so I was not able to sample it. HoweverMatsunaga said he was “surprised as it didn’t feel strange to eat it as sashimi.”

In addition, the company is also developing processed fish egg alternatives using seaweed as well as eel kabayaki made from tofu and “okara (a by-product of tofu)”. “We are aiming for processed roe [alternative] products to replicate the shape and texture of fish eggs, and we want to bring them to market as soon as possible,” said Matsunaga.

Osaka-based Fuji Oil Co., Ltd, sells soybean-derived sea urchin flavored “Soy Sachi Paste” for professional use. Since 1969, the company has been manufacturing and selling processed soybean ingredients such as granular soybean protein, which has a texture similar to that of meat.

Currently, the company is providing about 60 types of processed soybean foods that reproduce the texture of pork, chicken and beef to food manufacturers and food service companies. In recent years, against the backdrop of the global depletion of marine products, the company says it started applying its know-how to develop seafood alternatives.

The paste is currently sold to restaurants that offer menus using plant-derived ingredients. Since it is a business-to-business (B2B) company, the product is not on shelves, but it sometimes offers dishes using the product at public events that promote processed soybean foods.

“The production volume is still not much, but we hope to expand sales in the future. We are currently developing all sorts of alternative food products including marine product substitutes,” states the company PR representative.

Major Companies Research Cell-Cultured Seafood

Maruha Nichiro Corp., a major fisheries company, announced in August, 2021, that it will start joint research with IntegriCulture Inc., a Tokyo-based startup that owns a proprietary cell culture technology, to produce cell-cultured fish products. The goal is to meet the growing global demand for marine products while curbing reliance on natural resources.

So what kind of fish cells is the company considering culturing? According to Makoto Mitarai, a manager at the Maruha Nichiro business planning department, they are focused on fishes that are in great demand worldwide. “First, we aim to mass-produce salmon and white fish. We will provide cells of our farmed salmon and other fish for research.”

The company expects cultured fish meat to be used for processed food such as fried fish, rather than served raw. Although it is not thinking of raw usage at this point, “there are companies overseas that are working on the development of salmon alternatives that can be used for sushi. If we see that consumers are open to consuming it raw, we may provide it in the future.” Mitarai said.

In the first year of the joint research, the companies will validate whether fish cell culture is possible. In the second and third years, in parallel with the construction of culture technology, Maruha Nichiro-side will proceed with the development of processed foods using cultured fish meat samples. The company hopes to achieve technological development between 2024 to 2026 and aim for product commercialization thereafter.

“We want to aim for the fastest commercialization in the world. We hope to lead the world with Japanese technology and meet the world’s fish demand,” said Mitarai. The PR representative for Integriculture said “More research progress is needed, but if mass production is realized in the future, it will be possible to keep the price of alternatives on the market at or below the price of real seafood.”

Will the use of seafood alternatives be widespread in the future? “For plant-derived seafood products, there are no major regulatory issues because they use foods that are already common. But Japan is rich in marine products and the Japanese are picky with taste. From this perspective, spreading this to consumers is a high hurdle at this point. The key is how close it can come to existing marine products in taste and texture,” Sato said.

According to Megumi Avigail Yoshitomi, the PR manager of the Association for Cellular Agriculture at the Center for Rule-making Strategies at Tama University, the development of rules and consumer acceptance are key issues for cultured seafood. “The industry needs to make efforts to make it easier for cultured seafood to be more acceptable, such as adopting product names that convey what kind of food they are and providing safety information.”

Seafood alternatives have just come into the market. Whether or not it will gain footing in Japan and worldwide and contribute to meeting the global food demand will all depend on the companies’ ability to develop and provide products that are appetizing to consumers.

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