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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Aqua Cultured Foods Aims to Eradicate Overfishing with Sushi That Isn’t Sushi

Despite over 80% of the world’s fish stocks being fully exploited or overexploited, global seafood demand is expected to jump another 30% by 2030. Aqua Cultured aims to deliver affordable, nutritious seafood alternatives to allow our oceans to recover.

Born in the summer of 2020, at height of the pandemic, Aqua Cultured Foods was set up to “address some of the most pressing issues of our time,” according to co-founders Anne Palermo and Brittany Chibe. The company’s first food product — set to be trialled in restaurants later this fall — looks just like delicate, sushi-grade fish. And it has the same texture and taste. But it’s not fish. High in protein and fiber, free from allergens and GMOs, and with just a fraction of the calories of traditional seafood, Aqua Cultured Foods’ ‘almost indistinguishable’ seafood alternative is just, well, better, according to the pair.

“Our mission is to feed the world sustainably with really delicious, healthy foods that are also priced at a point that everybody can afford them,” Palermo tells Sustainable Brands™ from her base in Chicago.

Our oceans, and the seafood industry they support, are in trouble. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks are “fully exploited or overexploited.” By the middle of the century, wild seafood stocks could be diminished entirely. Some of the most popular fish species — including Atlantic cod, halibut and tuna — are threatened with extinction. The 20 million tons of bycatch — fish unintentionally caught in nets and thrown back to sea as ‘waste’ — caught every year account for up to 40 percent of all wild catch.

Then, there are the human rights issues associated with the fishing sector, with forced labor commonplace in all corners of the globe.

Yet, the global demand for seafood continues to rise

By 2030, demand is set to jump another 30 percent. “Two billion people are going to be born in 30 years. And most of them are going to be born in Southeast Asia and China, where seafood is the number-one protein consumed per capita,” Palermo says.

Fish farms are increasingly seen as the answer. But they can also cause aquatic pollution; and many farms still rely heavily on wild-caught fish for feed.

Palermo and Chibe hope that by delivering alternatives to seafood that offer the same nutritional value — at a price people can afford — will suitably reduce the pressure on our oceans and allow them to recover: “I definitely think consumers are ready. The majority of the population is really focused on bottom-line costs. And until you can bring down the cost of an alternative protein to parity or better, there’s going to be a little bit of a hurdle. So, that’s something we’re focused on.”

A secret fermentation process

So, how do they create seafood that isn’t seafood? Unsurprisingly, It’s a big secret. But it does involve traditional fermentation processes that have been used to make foods like kombucha and sauerkraut for hundreds of years, and an increasingly popular source of sustainable food alternatives: fungi. According to its website: “We start with widely available, affordable, unprocessed organic matter and add a nutrient-rich solution to ‘feed’ and nurture the microbes. We then introduce a strain of fungi to begin the transformation. By controlling environmental factors like heat, humidity and moisture — and nailing the formula — the end result is a whole protein with a realistic texture and taste to traditional seafood.”

So, far Palermo and her team have developed formulas for tuna, whitefish, squid and shrimp. There is no genetic altering, and all products are 100 percent GMO-free. And, crucially, they claim they have been able to get the taste right.

“We’re starting off with a protein that tastes like water; so, it’s very easy for us to replicate the eating experience because we don’t have to use chemical masking agents, fat, salts or sugars, in order to cover up bad taste,” shares Palermo, a food developer who has spent the last 12 years working up new products, including high-protein snacks. “We can use a gentle hand to truly mimic the actual taste of seafood — and make the flavor milder to satisfy a US palate.”

When it comes to mimicking the texture of something like sushi-grade fish, the team says it can use traditional equipment commonly used to tenderize beef and chicken to “dial down” the product’s hard texture.

The eureka moment

Chibe remembers doing experiments in Palermo’s kitchen during the 2020 lockdown, not long after meeting each other at a networking event in Chicago.

“Every week, we would test and try different things; it was getting better and better,” she said. “There was a moment when I came into the office and our team said, ‘You have to try this’ — a piece of our tuna sashimi. It was so much like real tuna. Over such a short amount of time, it’s been so exciting to see the progression of the product.”

It’s early days for Aqua Cultured. Now a team of six, the business has big ambitions — and its timing couldn’t be better: According to a recent report from Boston Consulting Group, the shift to alternative proteins may be the most capital-efficient and high-impact solution to addressing the climate crisis — and over 30 percent of consumers surveyed are ready to make the switch in order to have less impact on the climate. And alongside fellow innovators including Aleph Farms and Opalia — which have developed sustainable and nearly indistinguishable alternatives to some of our most environmentally damaging, animal-derived favorite foods — companies such as Aqua Cultured Foods are about to have their moment.

To start, it will target the food service sector which, in the US, accounts for around 70 percent of all seafood consumption, according to Chibe: “As our company grows, we’ll be able to undercut the price of seafood quite significantly at commercial scale. And so, we see a future where we could potentially be a main protein source for a wide number of people globally — especially for prepared foods, such as being cooked inside of a dumpling, ravioli or spring roll.”

The other advantage is that the firm’s products will have a refrigerated shelf life of roughly three to four weeks — “unlike traditional sushi, which has to be consumed within 48 hours, which creates lots of waste,” Palermo adds.

The inventive pair acknowledges that what they are doing is not going to displace conventional fishing practices any time soon: “We’re not naive. The fishing industry feeds a lot of people and there’s lots of people that depend on it. But we can create more sustainable, healthier oceans by offering our protein source and giving consumers more options.”