Published 1 year ago.
About a 6 minute read.
Image: Aqua Cultured Foods
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
“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
By the middle of the
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
Then, there are the human rights issues associated with the fishing sector, with
in all corners of the globe.
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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.
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
to parity or better, there’s going to be a little bit of a hurdle. So, that’s
something we’re focused on.”
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.
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
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
— 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.”
Published Aug 9, 2022 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Tom is founder of storytelling strategy firm Narrative Matters — which helps organizations develop content that truly engages audiences around issues of global social, environmental and economic importance. He also provides strategic editorial insight and support to help organisations – from large corporates, to NGOs – build content strategies that focus on editorial that is accessible, shareable, intelligent and conversation-driving.