Oceans of opportunity

Different food on a wooden table, burgers, fries, grilled eggplant, salad, different sauces and olives, top view. Outdoors food Concept

While fish substitutes are still niche compared with plant-based meat, poultry and milk alternatives, the tide is turning.

According to global data from Innova Market Insights, the number of new introductions in the fish analogue space has increased by 42% year on year since 2016. But it wasn’t until last year that the category really started to gain traction - new launches doubled during 2021 versus the previous year. According to Innova Market Insights nearly 400 new fish analogue products have been launched in the last five years globally, but this is barely skimming the surface of the sea of opportunity that exists for plant-based fish.

As Sara Miozzo, Customer Innovation & Insights Specialist, EMEA Food Solutions, puts it: “The fish substitutes market is at the early stage of development. Fish analogues are in a similar place to where meat analogues were five or six years ago.”

Effectively, the rise of fish substitutes is an extension and evolution of the more established meat alternative movement. Sara Miozzo continues: “It all started with the meatless revolution. What we are seeing today in fish substitutes is a development of this trend. More people are adopting flexitarian or vegan diets, and the supermarkets are dedicating ever more shelf space to meat substitutes.”

Planet-driven protein trend

Growing concern about the environmental impact of eating animal products and, to a lesser extent, health and animal welfare are driving this consumer behaviour. Nadia D’Incecco, Director Functional Solutions EMEA, says: “The main driver is sustainability and caring for the planet. Fish stocks are rapidly depleting and there is increasing awareness of the importance of fishing in a sustainable way and caring for the marine environment.”

She continues: “At Brenntag F&N, we draw on market analyst intelligence as well as our global presence in markets to stay abreast of trends and make predictions for the future. We see fish substitutes as a niche but one that is poised for growth, and we want to be at the forefront of this - helping manufacturers to set the standard in terms of quality and to increase choice within this category.”

Angling for opportunities

Although opportunities abound in fish substitutes, netting the market potential is not easy, as formulating fish substitutes involves a high level of complexity. “Not everyone has the resources to tackle such a complex product,” says Nadia D’Incecco.

Cezary Kowalski, Business Manager Savoury CEE, picks up on this point, saying: “Developing a successful fish substitute requires knowledge of both fish processing and plant processing - when that knowledge is combined, the possibilities start to become really interesting.”

Shrimp satay with pesto and chili sauces

Building blocks of innovation

Generally speaking, the technical challenges associated with developing fish substitute products come under three headings: taste, texture and nutrition. All three must be overcome if a fish substitute is to have a chance of market success. By bringing together specialist expertise from three of its development centres and drawing on each of their strengths - Poland (taste & flavour), Austria (nutrition & fortification) and Italy (texturising) - Brenntag has conceived a suite of highly innovative solutions or ‘building blocks’ that overcome the challenges encountered when developing fish substitutes.

For companies looking for full product development support, these building blocks can be combined in a holistic solution to create a complete, ready-for-market product. Customers who have some in-house product development capabilities can pick and choose which ‘building blocks’ they need from Brenntag, whether that is ‘fortification’, ‘juiciness and texture’ or ‘good frying properties’, for example.

This collaboration has resulted in the development of two breakthrough concepts - plant-based canned tuna and fish-free fingers - based on these building blocks.

According to Thomas Fanzlau, Technology Manager Food & Nutrition EMEA, the starting point for developing any fish analogue is to “slip into the mind of the consumer”. This was where Brenntag’s application specialists started with these products. “The main attributes consumers value in fish are taste, texture and nutritional value. Therefore, the focus of this project was to mimic these attributes,” says Thomas Fanzlau.

Nutrition and fortification

When it came to constructing the nutritional profile of these fish analogues, omega-3 was a key component, along with niacin, iodine and vitamins D and B12 - all nutrients that the consumer expects from fish.

However, formulating with these ingredients is never straightforward, as the team found when developing these concepts. “Building omega-3 into the product matrix without affecting the taste was challenging. We tried different sources and, in the end, chose flaxseed oil. We found it amplified the fishy taste, thereby improving the overall sensory profile,” says Thomas Fanzlau.

With the vitamins and minerals, Thomas Fanzlau says that experimenting with inclusion levels enabled the avoidance of off-notes. The macronutrient profile must also be in balance and the fat content in particular is an important nutritional consideration - consumers expect a low saturated fat content from fish substitutes.

Texture and structure

Fish and seafood exhibit a wide variety of different textures - from soft to firm, chewy, juicy, elastic and dense. Plant proteins alone cannot mimic all those, which is why product developers need to combine different stabilisers and fibres to replicate these unique structures. In addition, some plant proteins have limited gelling, emulsifying and water absorption capacity, which creates additional complexities.

The go-to proteins in plant-based product development are soy and wheat. However, Brenntag’s application scientists were keen to formulate the fish-free fish fingers with more sustainable and label-friendly chickpea protein. “This was very tricky because the limited texturizing capabilities and off-taste of chickpea protein presented a dual challenge,” says Simone Bavaresco, Technical Sales Manager Food Solution Europe South. “We solved this by combining the chickpea protein with bamboo fibre with an appropriate hydrocolloidal system together with the flavouring system developed by our colleagues in Poland,” he explains.

Taste, mouthfeel, and appearance

Cezary Kowalski, who was involved in this aspect of the project, says: “We masked the off-notes with herbs, spices and vegetables also with flavour components.” But eliminating off-notes was just one element of a highly complex flavour matrix, as he explains: “Fish has a very specific aroma, and this varies with each species or product. With fish fingers, the aroma is dominated by white fish from the ocean, so we sought to mimic this, creating a flavour system that was strong in saltiness and sweetness, with an umami quality and an acid citrus note. The water content was also important to achieve the juiciness that consumers expect from fish fingers. We achieved this with a pre-emulsion component.”

Last but not least, the appearance of the ‘faux’ fish has to be similar to its real fish counterpart in order to ensure consumer appeal and acceptance. Matching pale colours is difficult but not impossible - in the fish finger concept calcium carbonate in combination with other ingredients has a whitening effect.

Tuna without the catch

Taking a similar approach, technologists from the three application centres collaborated to develop a plant-based tuna. “We used texturised vegetable protein as a base, fortified with vitamins, minerals and omega-3 and combined with a flavour system that emulates the classic smell and taste of tuna. We canned the tuna in sunflower oil because this has a subtle fish taste that makes it ideal for fish processing. However, we could just as easily preserve it in brine or tomato sauce, or mix it with vegan mayonnaise,” explains Cezary Kowalski.

Using these blocks as the foundation for fish analogues, the possibilities for customisation and differentiation are endless. Local customisation plays a particularly important role in fish substitute development, as seafood consumption habits are very localised, and this is reflected in Brenntag’s approach. “One of our strengths as a product development partner is that we have local application specialists everywhere in the world. Our approach is to develop universally applicable solutions and then use our in-country application expertise and local development centers to adapt and fine-tune them to regional preferences and palates,” says Nadia D’Incecco.

The world is your oyster

The fish substitute space has been slower to develop than the plant-based meat market, but with good reason - fish products are highly complex to replicate in a vegan format. However, there are clear signs that fish substitutes are on a rising tide, with ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook products leading the way. It won’t be long before the market moves beyond nuggets and fingers either - in vegan octopus, cuttlefish, shrimps, and clams are already on the Brenntag NPD menu. For those companies who are prepared to take a chance on fish analogues, there is an ocean of opportunity.