A group of international students have developed a 3D technique for printing plant-based fish alternatives.
First on the cards for the trio hailing from the University of Gothenburg, the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, and the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) are plant-based salmon fillets, to be consumed as either sushi or sashimi, as well as an alternative to smoked salmon.
In the future, the international team – known as Legendary Vish – plan to expand into other plant-based fish products, such as 3D-printed tuna or herring alternatives.
Filling a gap in the market
Robin Simsa, Hakan Gürbüz, and Theresa Rothenbücher came together in 2017 under the EU-led research project Training4CRM.
Originally, the group developed 3D printing processes for medical technologies as part of their PhD projects, however early on, they realised that small modifications could be made to the technology to print plant proteins and binders in structured forms.
At the same time, the trio observed a gap in the plant-based sector – particularly in seafood alternatives.
“We saw that in the plant-based seafood market, there are currently mainly unstructured products, such as fish sticks or burgers. However, products with a more complex structure such as salmon fillets can not be found on the market right now,” Legendary Vish CEO Robin Simsa told FoodNavigator.
“We saw a unique opportunity in utilising 3D food printing to create seafood products with a complex structure, which cannot be achieved with classical extrusion technologies.”
A sustainable alternative to conventional fish?
The desire to develop plant-based alternatives to conventional fish products was also driven by the sustainability agenda.
Fish consumption, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) is on the rise. Human consumption of fish has increased by 3.6% on a global scale year-on-year since new fishing methods were introduced in the 1960s.
This means that where people were consuming nine kilograms of fish on average per year in the 1960s, by 1997 that figure had risen to 16kg per person. Today, the WHO believes the capacity of the world’s seas have been maximally exploited, and advancements in aquaculture mean more fish are being produced to meet demand.
For DTU’s Hakan Gürbüz, a member of the Legendary Vish project, vegan fish products represent a sustainable alternative to conventional fish – partly because the production itself requires fewer CO₂ emissions.
Further, production of plant-based fish alternatives can be based on locally sourced raw materials and produced without the energy consumption of fishing vessels, nor with the requirement of refrigerated trucks traditionally used in fish transportation.
Achieving the taste, texture, and appearance of fish
Legendary Vish is making its fish products out of mushroom and pea proteins, alongside ingredients such as starch or agar-agar gelling agents. Avocado or seeds and nut oil containing omega-3 fatty acids will also be included in the final product.
“One thing that is very important to us is the re-creation of the nutritional value of fish, and especially the omega-3 fatty acids,” Simsa explained. There are many sources of plant-, or algae- based omega-3 fatty acids, and we are right now experimenting with different ingredients to find the best solution for our products.”
Nutrition aside, the students are also working with aromas and fragrances to mimic the flavour of fish.
“For the taste of our products, we are working together with a specialized company in the field of flavour development to get a perfect salmon flavour by adding natural aromas and fragrances,” Simsa told this publication.
The 3D printing technology is responsible for achieving a fish-like texture and appearance, she continued. “We have a 3D printing process which allows the extrusion of different plant-based ingredients – our ‘food inks’ – through different print heads.
“With this special process, we achieve the complex appearance of our salmon fillets, which show the realistic distribution of orange/red meat tissue and white connective tissue.”
The Legendary Vish project remains under development while the students apply for funding before launching a company.
Earlier this year, Legendary Vish was selected as one of ten innovation projects to receive €6,000 in funding from the Greenstart funding programme in Austria. If the students qualify for the final, they will be in the running to secure a place in the Greenstart incubation programme in Vienna.
While the trio is hoping to succeed with its vegetarian fish product, it is open to pivoting its concept to become a 3D technology supplier for other companies – particularly those with vegetarian products.
Moving forward, the students plan to up-scale with its partner Felix Printers. “The key issues at producing plant-based seafood products with 3D printers is the scale-up to a production process, in order to produce large volumes of our product,” revealed the CEO.
“Luckily, with FELIX Printers, we have a partner for scale-up which has previous experience in the setup of large-scale production facilities for 3D food printing.”
Concerning regulatory barriers, Legendary Vish is already in touch with agencies in Austria – where the business will be based. “3D food printing is a relatively new technology, and the regulatory framework is not that well defined yet,” said Simsa.
“We are in contact with the regulatory agencies in Austria to make sure our production process complies with all relevant hygiene and quality requirements.”
Germany, Austria, and Switzerland are the first countries on the start-up’s commercialisation list, as the region – known as DACH – is the largest consumer market in the EU. Further, acceptance of plant-based meat alternatives across these countries is ‘already high’, said Simsa, ‘and growing’.
Next up, Legendary Vish is eyeing up Northern Europe. “We want to expand first to Scandinavia due to the high amount of seafood consumption and later also to other European countries.
“Our production upscale is planned to be finalised by 2022, and then consumers can get a first taste of our products.”