Mimicking whitefish with plants: Meet the Icelandic start-up developing Arctic seafood alternatives
Unsustainable fishing practices are decimating the oceans. Close to 80% of the world’s fisheries are already fully exploited, over-exploited, depleted, or in a state of collapse.
And yet, global fish consumption is on an upwards trajectory, having nearly doubled since 1998. Some researchers predict global fish consumption will increase a further 80% by 2022.
“Fish species have dropped to almost nothing. There is not a single country in the world that can claim sustainability in its fisheries,” according to entrepreneur Chris McClure. “The supply potential of fish farming is not going to meet skyrocketing global demand.”
McClure sees a solution in plant-based, a sector well established in alt burgers, mince, sausages, and nuggets categories. The seafood category, however, ‘has been neglected’, he told FoodNavigator. “There are some tuna options, but tuna is probably one of the easier products to replicate with soy, for instance.”
The difficulty lies in ‘doing seafood right’. Loki Foods, a start-up McClure founded with CSO Björn V. Aðalbjörnsson, is on a mission to do just that: mimicking seafood with plants to allow for ocean ‘replenishing’ and ‘rejuvenation’. “We need to stop taking from it…people need to reconsider their food choices.”
Whitefish: the ‘cornerstone of seafood’
Whitefish such as cod is considered ‘white gold’ in most north Atlantic and European cultures. In Iceland for example, a country considered the 12th largest fishing nation in the world, whitefish makes up 20% of total catch, but accounts for 40% of total catch value.
This is the fish Loki Foods wants to start with: the ‘cornerstone’ of seafood. When consumers think of seafood, they so often think of whitefish, he explained. The classic ‘fish and chips’ combo is often made with whitefish, whether haddock, cod, pollock or hake.
And coming from Iceland, the ‘seafood capital of the world’, feels important. “No one consumes more seafood than us, per capita. And it’s a major export for us.”
Loki Foods – which claims to be Iceland’s first plant-based seafood company – wants to replicate all the ‘positive elements’ of consuming whitefish. Whitefish is a good source of protein, iodine and omegas, while being low in sodium. “We can do all that with plants,” McClure told this publication.
What the start-up’s plant-based seafood will lack is all the ‘negative drawbacks’ that come from eating conventional whitefish, he explained, whether that be the presence of microplastics or high levels of mercury.
Targeting on-par nutritional profile
Loki Foods is still testing different combinations of plant-based ingredients to develop its finished products. The start-up is fortifying its seafood alternatives with iodine, ensuring low sodium content, and sourcing omegas from microalgae to ensure levels at least on par with a cod fillet. The start-up also
aspires to achieve a ‘very high’, if not ‘comparable’ protein level with North Atlantic cod.
“Overall, we’re aiming for a healthy, nice seafood experience, and something that emulates the whitefish experience, whether that be frying it on a pan, breading it for deep-frying, or using whatever seasoning you want. If you want to put it on pasta, or use in fish tacos, you can.
“That’s where we believe alternative seafood needs to be. But to date, it hasn’t been serving the planetary need.”
It’s not just about achieving a similar nutritional profile to that of whitefish, however. Loki Foods is also interested in limiting its ingredients list. “If you look at the other alternative seafood companies, they often have very long ingredients lists. We believe that’s excessive.”
The start-up has already achieved a flaky, whitefish muscle that holds moisture and shape while deep-frying or panfrying it, all with a substantially more minimal ingredients list than the average.
Retail and foodservice strategy for 2023 launch
Loki Foods is attracted by multiple sales channels and is producing products for both foodservice and retail. While the start-up has ‘only consumers in mind’, its market strategy is B2B2C, meaning that it won’t sell direct to consumers.
“We already have strong retail partners here in Iceland, as well as distribution partners, while at the same time we’ll be building that strong foodservice presence as well.”
Just as Iceland exports the majority of its seafood, Loki Foods is also interested in the international market. “We’re born global,” said McClure. “We’re a venture backed company, and most of our investors are from outside of Iceland.”
While the potential within the Icelandic market is undeniable – Reykajavík is home to the self-proclaimed largest vegan store in the world – Loki Foods plans to expand into the UK, European, and North American markets over the next couple of years. First market launches are expected as soon as early 2023.
Once established in the alt seafood category, the start-up will investigate other plant-based segments.
“We’re a climate-through-food company,” elaborated McClure. “We’re putting out products that are a massive step-up compared to the conventional. We’re producing the ‘future conventional’.”