Nearly half of EU marine habitats have been assessed as either endangered or near threatened – mainly due to pollution, fishing and aquaculture – by the European Commission.
It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that Europe currently imports three times more seafood than it produces. With researchers expecting demand for seafood to double by 2050, innovators are searching for ways to develop sustainable alternatives.
Leveraging fermentation technology to create sustainable seafood can help satisfy growing demand without further harming the oceans, according to The Good Food Institute (GFI), a non-profit advocating a switch to more sustainable foods.
To encourage innovation, GFI is funding a research project aimed at creating a new seafood product by growing fungi on seaweed.
Merging science with culinary expertise
The project will see a team of scientists, led by Dr Leonie Jahn from the Technical University of Denmark, work with Diego Prado, head of research at Copenhagen’s two Michelin-starred restaurant Alchemist.
It is expected the interactions between the scientists and the Alchemist team will be ‘critical’ to the project, as the chefs will be able to bring a ‘new dimension’, guiding the development of the food’s flavour in a way that may not be possible if the project was entirely lab-based.
For Dr Jahn, science and culinary disciplines need to merge to encourage consumer uptake.
“There are companies that are approaching these issues from a culinary perspective and there are companies that are approaching it from a science and technology perspective, but there needs to be a merger between these two approaches if we’re to make products that are really convincing and that people like to consume,” she told FoodNavigator.
“The food world and the science world really need to understand each other better and work more closely together. These two worlds aren’t at opposite ends of the spectrum – there’s a lot of overlap between how people work as chefs and how they work as scientists.”
Creating texture with filamentous fungi
Dr Jahn’s team will look into how the texture of filamentous fungi – microorganisms found in soil and other environments which form a mass of intertwining strands – can be used to create a range of sustainable foods.
The aim is to identify how different conditions can be leveraged to alter the fungi’s texture, creating products ranging from scaffold – which give structure to meat cultivated from animal cells – to animal-free foods that look and taste like meat.
Eventually, the collaboration aims to create a ‘whole cut’ product with the texture of seafood by using fungi to ferment seaweed in a process similar to the production of tempeh – a cooked and fermented soybean product held together by fungi.
The project isn’t initially setting out to mimic any particular product or species. Instead, it will develop as the teams learn more about how the texture of the fungi can be manipulated and how these textures can then be used to recreate seafood.
“I think there’re huge potential here – there aren’t a lot of seafood alternatives on the market but there’s certainly a need for them,” said Dr Jahn. “This is also an area that hasn’t really been explored before.”
For chef Prado, the objective is to bring a high-quality product to the table. “Our main goal with the project is to attempt to create a unique and delicious product that is good enough to be served at a fine dining restaurant, using natural ingredients with seaweed providing flavours of the sea and the mycelium adding to an attractive texture.”
What are the main challenges in creating a new seafood product out of algae and fungi?
According to Seren Kell, GFI’s Science and Technology Manager, more sophisticated manufacturing methods are being developed all the time. However, ‘huge’ challenges remain in creating products with the same taste and smell as conventional seafood.
“Using fungi in this way to recreate the flavour and texture of seafood products is a new approach which we hope will lead to outcomes that will help scientists and companies develop innovative ways of overcoming these challenges,” she told this publication.
Seafood products exhibit a wide range of distinct flavour profiles, with different species of fish and shellfish varying substantially in flavour and aroma, Kell explained.
“There is a huge challenge to mimic the flavours of animal-based seafood while avoiding off-flavours or overpowering ‘fishy’ tastes.
“This project takes an innovative approach to addressing this through using seaweed.”
If the method successfully recreates the texture and taste of seafood, the product may feature on the Danish restaurant’s menu. That decision would be up to Alchemist Head Chef Rasmus Munk.
From there, it could even go on to be sold more widely.
As GFI is funding the project, however, ownership of IP generated through the research will be jointly owned by GFI and the grantee. And any potential royalties generated through license agreements will be shared equally between the grantee and GFI.