Although the fishing industry usually has a lower environmental impact than meat farming, overfishing is an issue, so innovators are racing to come up with more sustainable alternatives without compromising too much on flavor. Among such innovators is Aqua Cultured Foods.
The startup grows fish-free versions of tuna, whitefish, calamari, and shrimp by using nothing else but fungi. “It has that gorgeous translucency and wet texture that you find in a raw piece of sashimi and sushi-grade fish,” says company CEO Anne Palermo.
While other startups are also working to replicate fish using plant-based ingredients, most of them are currently focusing on simpler textures, like fish sticks or fish patties. By comparison, Aqua Cultured Foods uses a completely different method of production, arguing that the result more closely resembles seafood both in its texture and nutritional profile.
“We’re growing a whole food ingredient,” Palermo says. “Because of that, the products aren’t highly processed. There’s no sodium, there’s no cholesterol.” According to Fast Company, a 100-gram serving has 80 calories, 10 to 12 grams of fiber, and 18 to 20 grams of protein, along with micronutrients like B vitamins.
The company uses fermentation to produce the fungi, much like the process used to make kombucha or kimchi. With two decades of experience in the food and beverage industry, Palermo began experimenting with the fungi at home. “I started to try to grow my own mycelium in my pantry, on pieces of wet cardboard,” she says. “Through one of my many experiments, I started to realize that this could be a real, viable option for an alternative seafood.”
Palermo is preparing to bring its products to the market as early as 2022, as the company is currently working with a flavor house to add some of the enzymes and amino acids that are naturally found in seafood.
“I honestly believe that has the potential to replace sushi as we see it now,” Palermo says. “It has so many benefits from a health standpoint, from a sustainability standpoint, from an ethical standpoint. And eventually, once we reach scale, it should be able to be more price competitive.”