Vegan fish analogues in the making

If the project that Wouter Franken is about to embark on within the technology company TOP is successful, it may bring a bit more variety to the shelves of meat substitutes in supermarkets. However, this time it won’t be with the introduction of yet another vegan hamburger but rather with a plant-based fish alternative.

“At the moment, we are considering two development routes,” says Franken. “The first one is the most obvious, which is the development of vegan fish sticks, battered fish, or another processed product based on white fish. The other route is the development of a plant-based white fish fillet.”

In the first option, the development of composite products, a lot of attention will be given to the mouthfeel, which is primarily determined by the crispy coating.

The other development route is more challenging. It involves developing a plant-based fish fillet that closely resembles the texture of a cod, haddock, or other white fish fillet in as many ways as possible. “When you eat real cod, you feel flakes of fish in your mouth,” clarifies Franken. “That is a result of the muscle tissue structure of the fish. You can mimic that mouthfeel by incorporating a flaky structure into your plant-based product.”

Another focus is replicating the segmented structure of a cooked white fish fillet, which is a result of the fish’s muscle structure. To imitate it, Franken is considering the use of compartmentalised moulds, possibly in the shape of a fillet, into which the plant-based protein mixture would be poured. The compartments in the mould might contribute to imitating the structure.

To make the experience of frying the plant-based fish resemble frying an animal-based white fish fillet, Franken hopes to achieve a slightly translucent and flexible texture in the fresh, unheated fillet. Heating the fillet would then turn it white and rigid. “That would be fantastic,” says Franken. “At least, if we aim for a plant-based replica of fresh fish. If we choose a pre-cooked product, it becomes a different story.”

Fish fillet is rich in protein. Naturally, the plant-based white fish fillet from TOP will also contain proteins, but Franken expects that he will need to limit the amount of proteins. “The most obvious proteins, like those from chickpeas or lupin, have a yellow colour,” explains the food technologist. “If we want to mimic the white colour of cod fillet, we will have to limit the amount of proteins.”

Fish is making a comeback on the menu in certain circles and diverse groups, thanks to positive reports about the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. While white fish may not contain omega-3 fatty acids in as high quantities as fattier fish species like salmon or sardines, Franken expects that adding or integrating omega-3 fatty acids or other functional substances into plant-based fish fillets should not pose any problems, provided that the source of the fatty acids is also plant-based. The same applies to the protein from soy.

The somewhat bland and beany taste of many plant-based proteins will also require limiting the protein content of a vegan white fish fillet. “White fish is relatively neutral in taste,” explains Franken. “We can mimic the taste of fish by using extracts and flavourings, but we will have to use them sparingly. This means that we cannot effectively mask the beany taste of plant-based proteins by intensifying the fish flavour.” Additions that suppress the beany taste of the plant-based proteins used may offer a solution.

Another point of focus in the development of the vegan fish fillet is the aroma that is released during the product’s cooking process. “That aroma should also evoke the original white fish fillet,” says Franken. “By using the appropriate natural flavours, we can likely come a long way.”

In their new project, Franken and his colleagues have chosen not to take the easiest route, given the many aspects in which their design needs to resemble the original white fish fillet. “If we want to create a fish substitute that appeals to a broad audience, this approach is necessary,” says Franken. “The majority of flexitarians buy something recognizable from the supermarket that they can put on the table tonight without question or doubt. To have a chance with that group, this approach is necessary.”

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