Plant-based innovation: From fermentation-derived calamari to vegan Mexican meats

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

AquaCultured Foods is making whole cut pieces of seafood from microbes, including calamari. GettyImages/rez-art
AquaCultured Foods is making whole cut pieces of seafood from microbes, including calamari. GettyImages/rez-art

Related tags plant-based Innovation Fermentation

What’s new in plant-based? FoodNavigator hears from entrepreneurs making whole muscle cut seafood alternatives from microorganisms and Mexican specialties from plants.

The alternative protein sector has expanded in recent years. Traditionally dominated by plants, today fermented and cultivated proteins are also recognised as a key ‘technological pillar’ in the space, according to the Good Food Institute (GFI).

In 2020, fermentation companies raised $587m and 13 new start-ups dedicated to the use of fermentation for alternative proteins, along with new suppliers focused on fermentation-derived alt protein ingredients, launched in the space, noted the non-profit in a recent report​.

Players working in microbial fermentation include UK mycoprotein major Quorn, Israeli start-up Kinoko-Tech,​ and US-based Arbiom​.

Now, a new fermentation-derived protein start-up is making a splash…in alt seafood. “Alternative seafood is still considered a nascent industry, with no major player,” ​explained Anne Palermo, co-founder and CEO of AquaCultured Foods at Big Idea Ventures’ demo day, “making AquaCultured Foods poised to become a household name.”

‘Plant-based seafood is a market white space’

AquaCultured Foods was born out of concern for negative environmental impacts associated with today’s seafood industry.

“Currently, 90% of all wild fisheries are categorised as being overfished, leaving 170 countries with unmet demand for seafood. On top of this, global seafood demand is expected to increase by 30%,” ​Palermo told delegates.

The start-up, which creates fermentation-derived whole muscle cut seafood alternatives, is targeting the $2.7trn global meat market. Of this, $216.9bn comes from the global seafood market, which makes AquaCultured Foods’ ‘obtainable market’ more than $2bn, we were told.

“We’re going after part of the 126% y-o-y growth in the refrigerated alternative proteins space. Plant-based seafood is a market white-space.”

The solution, according to Palermo, is to introduce whole cut pieces of seafood alternatives – from shrimp to calamari, white fish and tuna – into the market.

“We do this through the process of fermentation, where we are able to replicate the whole muscle appearance, nutrition and texture of traditional seafood,” ​Palermo explained.

AcquaCultured Foods achieves this via its fermentation technology, for which it has three patents pending: one for the method of production, another for its use in the food system, and the third for the strain of fungi itself.

The start-up claims its products are ‘nutritionally superior’ to other seafood alternatives on the market because they are ‘grown, not processed’, meaning that they retain all naturally occurring proteins, fibres and micronutrients. “They’re also texturally familiar to traditional seafood,” ​the CEO added.

AquaCultured Foods plans to launch into foodservice, restaurants, and retail. “We’re also going to be able to take advantage of significant national partnership opportunities with a white label product,” ​we were told.

The start-up is currently raising $1.5m that would see three to six SKUs launch into 1,000 stores, its popcorn shrimp product rollout into foodservice, and R&D on a new line of seafood completed. AquaCultured Foods is also looking to scale production and acquire ‘key hires’.

Plant-based Mexican favourites

Elsewhere in the vegan sphere, entrepreneurs are working to recreate traditional regional specialties with plants, instead of meat.

Los Angeles-based Plant Ranch Foods is one such company. The start-up is ‘filling a need’ in the market for plant-based, Mexican-flavoured proteins, according to CEO Gary Huerta.

“Right now, our competition is neither truly Mexican, nor are they providing an extended line up of flavours and protein types that you’d find in the kitchens of Latin American families,” ​he told delegates at the Big Ideas Ventures event.

Rather, Huerta argues that food readily available in ‘Mexican’ restaurants isn’t Mexican food at all, but ‘Mexican junk food’.

Plant Ranch’s solution is to provide ‘uncompromising, real Mexican options’ that ‘look, chew and taste’ like traditional Mexican dishes.

tacos rez-art
Plant Ranch Foods is recreating traditional Mexican meat dishes with plants. GettyImages/rez-art

Available products include a vegan Al Pastor to be used in tacos, burritos, tostadas, tortas, and stuffed bell peppers. Its ingredients list includes sietan, Chipotle peppers, and vegan beef flavour bouillon. The start-up has also developed alternatives to Pollo Asado and Carne Asada.

“Our Carnitas looks and tastes like slow roasted pork, and other flavours are slow, simmered and complex sauces suing traditional spices and recipes,” ​Huerta added. The company describes its process as ‘multi-stage’, with flavours based on ‘generations-old family recipes’. A provisional patent is being submitted for the technology.

Plant Ranch is currently available across 20 states in the US. With additional funding, the start-up plans on expanding its reach into retail and foodservice. In the 12-months following its $2m Series A round, it expects to reach $16m in revenue.

“We’ll begin testing more prepared foods, reaching national foodservice accounts, and ultimately, launch new lines, including classic American and Italian flavour profiles,” ​said Huerta.

‘Healthier’ meat analogues

Another US-based start-up is focusing on health in plant-based – a sector that has been criticised for being ‘ultra-processed’ and nutritionally inferior to its conventional counterpart.

“Plant-based doesn’t always mean healthy,” ​said New Breed Meats’ founder and CEO Samantha Edwards. “And more importantly to the consumers, plant-based meats just don’t always taste good.”

New Breed Meats, on the other hand, is made from a novel protein – a blend of pea protein and brown rice protein, with pea fibre, sunflower oil and pea starch – that makes it ‘more nutritious’ and ‘absolutely delicious’. The range include a New Breed Burger and New Breed Grounds, the latter which can be used in tacos, lasagne, plant-based meatballs and pizza.

The start-up, which claims to be the only black and woman-led producer of plant-based meats, is targeting two key market groups: African Americans (“the fastest growing plant-based demographic in the US”​) and flexitarians – the largest consumers of plant-based foods.

“These two groups combined make up over 40% of the population,” ​Edwards continued.

The start-up has developed plant-based burger and mince products. Image source: New Breed Meats

From a health perspective, New Breed Meats range contains ‘up to 40% less ingredients’ and has ‘up to 75% less saturated fat’, which the CEO said means the start-up is ‘poised to win’ against its competition.

“We believe there is plenty of room for us to play and capture market share because of our delicious taste, our unbelievably meaty texture, our unique positioning as a woman and black-owned brand, our healthier product mix and our genuine mission-driven messaging.”

Concerning routes to market, New Breed Meats is targeting both foodservice and retail. By 2022, the start-up plans to bring in $1.3m. By the end of year five, with the help of national distribution, it expects to boast a yearly revenue of $82m.

The company is currently raising $1m to ‘expand production, support sales and marketing, and drive nationwide distribution’.

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