Beyond Fish? The next frontier in plant-based alternatives

Expert says seafood alternatives are needed due to the environmental impact of commercial fishing

Ahimi products. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Ocean Hugger Media)

The arrival of plant-based meats at chains including A&W and Tim Hortons is just the first step towards mainstream sustainable eating for Blair Bullus.

The Vancouver flexitarian and businessman has his eye on the next frontier: Fish and seafood alternatives that — like products made by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods — mimic the look and taste of the real thing for pescatarians not quite ready to give up sashimi.

It’s still a nascent movement, but Bullus points to faux experiments that have popped up in recent years, ranging from chickpea-based “tuna” to carefully carved smoked carrot “salmon.”

Bullus’ company Top Tier Foods Inc. actually sells quinoa, including an especially sticky variety designed to replace rice in vegan sushi rolls that otherwise don’t have the protein and omega-3 fatty acids of fish.

It’s available at the Quebec City-based chain Yuzu Sushi where customers can pair it with faux ahi tuna — a coral-red facsimile carved out of Roma tomatoes. Known as Ahimi, it’s made by New York’s Ocean Hugger Foods.

Bullus doesn’t expect to fool sushi eaters with the combination, but he hopes it can at least assuage any nutritional and environmental concerns by those who ditch fish.

“It’s just becoming easier to make those decisions so you don’t necessarily have to give up sushi or you don’t have to necessarily give up your salmon and avocado roll,” Bullus says.

“You’re going to have an alternative that has the same mouth-feel as what you’re used to.”

Whether the average omnivore is ready to give up their salmon and shrimp has yet to really be tested.

READ MORE: A&W introduces Beyond Meat veggie burgers across Canada

Efforts to produce realistic sushi-grade varieties are dwarfed by the research, funding and marketing push behind plant-based and lab-grown beef, says Bruce Friedrich, co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute.

Nevertheless, he says seafood alternatives are just as necessary, describing the environmental impact of commercial fishing as “at least as bad as cattle-ranching” and akin to “the strip-mining of our oceans.” He also lambastes aquaculture for its use of antibiotics.

“If these were terrestrial farming practices, people would be horrified,” says Friedrich, whose Washington, D.C.-based institute has funded open-sourced research into plant-based projects at the University of Manitoba and University of Guelph, as well as research on lab-grown meat — also known as cell-based meat — at the University of Toronto.

“Obviously, you know the link between seafood and human slavery, the pathetically lax regulation of the seafood industry to the degree that you don’t even know what you’re getting, the amount of mercury and dioxin and lead and other forms of contamination. This is an industry that is ripe for transformation.”

RELATED: Beyond Meat goes public as sales of plant-based meats rise

In Canada, Maple Leaf Foods said earlier this year it is investing heavily in plant-based products, although it’s not clear if any of that will involve faux fish. Gardein’s line of meatless foods include a breaded “fishless filet” and breaded “crabless cakes.”

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

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