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The plant-based “meat” industry has enjoyed considerable growth in recent years as plant-only options become closer in taste and texture to the real deal. Historically, plant-based protein options have been limited to beef, pork, and poultry look-alikes. Even meat giant Tyson Foods is getting in on the act with its introduction of vegan bratwurst and burger patties. But “fish” from plants appears to be the next frontier of plant-based meat.
Plant-based seafood, including imitators of tuna and salmon, is starting to emerge as an available option. Much of the lag behind other meatless meats is that seafood is much harder to replicate than beef, chicken or pork. But now with more research and development dollars being pumped into imitation fish, you may have noticed that new products are emerging fast. Sales for plant-based seafood rose by about 23 percent in 2020, according to Bloomberg.
While there are several sustainable options when it comes to choosing seafood, many people are deciding to forgo the fishmonger altogether as a way to move towards a plant-based “greener” diet. Concerns about overexploited fisheries, contaminants, pollution from fish farms and unethical working conditions in some segments of the fishing industry are commonly cited as reasons why people are reeling in fish made from plants. Some fish farming operations, including catfish, can generate high amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. And some just view these products as a natural progression of eating more plant-based.
Plant-based seafood is certainly a very interesting concept. But should you buy in? Here’s everything you need to know about the plant food that has reached uncharted waters.
In both supermarkets and increasingly restaurants you can now find plant-based versions of breaded fish fillets, crab cakes, canned tuna , shrimp , fish sticks , sushi eel , tuna spread and fish burgers made not with wild or farmed fish but instead items such as textured soy protein, pea protein isolate, seaweed powder (contributes to the authenticity of the flavor), yeasts and seasonings. On the horizon is cell-cultivated (that means lab-grown from living fish cells, rather than plant-based) sushi-grade salmon that can be produced in the middle of any mega-city.
Through a lot of RD, these fish-free options are designed to mimic as best as possible the flavor, texture and appearance of regular seafood. In several instances, plant-based seafood can taste and have the mouth feel pretty close to the real deal without the overwhelming fishy smell. At the moment, however, canned tuna has a ways to go. But it’s pretty good in a “tuna” salad.
In many ways, comparing seafood with plant-based versions is like comparing beans to beef — they are not one in the same nutritionally.
The ingredient list of these products can read like a chemistry quiz, with curious items like methylcellulose, autolyzed yeast extract and potato starch. So by definition, much of the fishless seafood on the market can be considered ultra-processed — packaged foods that have been greatly altered with a range of manufactured ingredients. Unlike ultra-processed foods which have been linked to worsening heart health, we have some good data that eating fish, especially omega-3 rich species like salmon and sardines, can be beneficial for various health measures including overall heart functioning, which is why the American Heart Association recommends we consume at least two servings of fatty fish weekly.
To date, we don’t have any research looking at the health impacts of regularly eating these heavily processed faux seafood products. Chances are that as long as your overall diet focuses on whole foods, then adding some plant-based fish burgers and fish sticks to your menu rotation likely won’t present a big health challenge. And eating them likely won’t be as detrimental as consuming some other ultra-processed foods like soda, donuts or cheese puffs. Just don’t become dependent on them for their convenience. Beans, lentils, tofu and tempeh are still going to be more nutritious foods from the plant kingdom.
The ingredient list on many seafood alternatives often includes either soy protein or pea protein, which lends them a dose of protein ranging from as little as 3 grams to up to nearly 20 grams in a serving. For comparison, 3 ounces of farmed salmon supplies about 17 grams of protein. As a general rule of thumb, the fishless burgers will be more protein-dense than something like plant-based canned tuna or shrimp. The type of protein in actual fish can be considered a higher quality owing to the greater levels of essential amino acids, but both soy and pea are protein sources that are nearly on par with animal-based. If you are serving up a plant-based fish product that is low in protein, you’ll need to make up for the shortfall somewhere else in your diet.
Some products incorporate algae oil for a dose of the same omega-3s that you would source from the marine world, and this is an addition to be celebrated. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that levels of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and algae is predictive of mortality, meaning more of those fats might mean extra years on your life. Just keep in mind that the omega-3s you’ll get from these products may not be at the same level as you would obtain from fatty swimmers like salmon, mackerel and black cod. Unfortunately, manufacturers are not always transparent about how much omega-3s their products supply. But if you are giving up fish for fish from plants, then these products can provide a valuable source of these mega-healthy fats, even if not a perfect one.
It’s worth noting that compared to meatless products like burgers and sausages designed to mimic red meat, fishless fish typically contains much lower amounts of saturated fat in comparison to unsaturated fat, which can be a win for your heart health. That is likely because they are not trying to mimic something like a beef burger or pork sausage that can have high amounts of saturated fat. If not breaded and fried, most fish is not a significant source of saturated fat.
It’s also worth keeping an eye on sodium levels, which can be noticeably higher than what is found in their real fish counterparts. So if you are eating a product with a high amount of sodium listed on the nutrition facts panel, just be sure to moderate your intake elsewhere in your diet.
A potential nutritional advantage that these seafood imposters provide is dietary fiber. Some products provide up to 5 grams of fiber in a serving, which you won’t get with regular seafood. That makes them helpful in making up for the fiber shortfall so many people are dug into. But it’s likely healthier to get most of the fiber you need from whole, plant-based foods like legumes, fruits and veggies than a can of false tuna.
A lower risk of consuming contaminants like mercury and microplastics as well as the residues of antibiotics used in some fish farming, such as shrimp, is one reason why some people are making the switch. But at current seafood consumption levels in America, there is a question of whether the intake of contaminants like mercury from seafood is at levels that pose a risk to healthy people who are not pregnant.
People with soy or wheat allergies will need to carefully read ingredient lists, as most products contain one or both of these.
For those that already adhere to a vegetarian or vegan diet, plant-based seafood offers a viable additional dietary choice where there were no options before. And in certain instances this can help address global fishing concerns. It can be overwhelming to navigate the waters of sustainable seafood, and oftentimes those options can be hard to find and expensive. However, if someone is choosing these seafood alternatives because they believe them to be healthier than traditional seafood or generally nutritious overall, they may want to reconsider this thought process.
As it stands now, these faux-fish products should be viewed as a way to shake up your usual eating routine, rather than a daily staple in your diet.