Will Plant-Based Seafood Products Prove To Be a Sustainable Alternative?

Working in the plant-based food industry for the last decade, David Benzaquen’s mission has been to find sustainable alternatives to eggs, dairy, fish, and meat, and a few years ago, he partnered with Certified Master Chef James Corwell to launch Ocean Hugger Foods. Based in New York, Ocean Hugger Foods offers plant-based alternatives to sushi. From reducing the need to catch the world’s most endangered species to offering a unique and cost-friendly culinary experience,the company is leading the movement in savory sustainability. 

Benzaquen, who will be a speaker at SeaAhead’s Global Bluetech Summit on October 9-10 in New York, caught up with SeaAhead recently to discuss the rapid growth of plant-based alternatives to seafood and their promising economic, environmental, and social effects. 

Tell me a little about Ocean Hugger Foods; where did the idea for the company come from and why is now the time?

Ocean Hugger Foods’ founder and chief innovation officer, certified master chef James Corwell, has a long and storied career. He has been awarded some of the top accolades in the culinary world. Years ago, he worked for the culinary institute of America. He was sent on an assignment to Japan to teach and train chefs in the U.S. Navy. While there he visited a place called the Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest fish market in the world. Each day they auction off four million pounds of tuna, many of which are extremely endangered. He became extremely concerned with the sustainability of our oceans and our ability to keep up with the popularity of these proteins. He knew that the human population is rising, and the populations of fish are shrinking, so he wanted to do something about it.

Having taught culinary history for a long time, he knew that the flavor that is most prominent in tuna and foods that tuna is most commonly eaten with is “umami,” which is usually translated into English as “savory.” The chemical compound responsible for umami is glutamic acid, which most people know of in a synthetic form as monosodium glutamate (MSG). He knew that the Chinese first created MSG when they isolated glutamic acid from tomatoes, so he knew that tomato were extremely rich in this umami flavor. He knew that if he could find a way to mute the acidity and sweetness of tomatoes, then he would have a really good umami base on which to create a tuna experience. That’s how he decided to start turning tomatoes into tuna, and we’ve gone from there. 

National Geographic has said that by 2048 there will be no more fish species at commercial levels of any species. The oceans are really at peril. Climate change is obviously frightening, and we know that there is more carbon stored in the oceans than on earth. Messing with the populations in the oceans can create algal blooms and coral destructions that will release unbelievable amounts of carbon into the air. We aren’t even able to measure the impact we are having, but we know that it is tremendous. We are trying to do our part. 

You currently have one product for sale and two in development — tell me a little about them and how you see the company expanding over time.

We launched in November of 2017 at a dozen Whole Foods — and we’re now 5-6 times that in that chain. [These days] we are in hundreds of different locations in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean. We are in food service: restaurants, colleges, corporate cafeterias, etc. with our tomato-based raw tuna, Ahimi. Our eggplant-based eel, Unami, is launching as we speak. We have many other products in the pipeline, but we see this as a global company.

We have big ambitions to expand, certainly to the Far East. In the short term we will be launching in Europe. We just exhibited at a trade show in the U.K., and we will be launching there in the fall, and we will be expanding from there. We really see the opportunity to disrupt the global supply chain for endangered seafood as crucial — a huge opportunity both environmentally and economically.

The reality is that the sustainability crisis in the oceans for these species of fish also creates inefficiencies and economic problems. The supply chain is such that fishermen can’t be sure how much they are going to catch. The prices are skyrocketing; they’re very volatile. For example, in the past ten years the price of freshwater eel has gone up 8000%. By selling commodities like tomatoes and eggplants that have gone through our special process to give people the experiences of tuna and eel, we are able to replace extraordinary culinary experiences while keeping prices fixed and affordable, so that everybody can continue to enjoy them. 

I would assume that consumers’ primary motivations for choosing plant-based alternatives to seafood relate to health and traceability. How does Ahimi’s nutritional content compare to that of real fish, and how much do you have to educate the market?

One of the main motivators to move in the plant-based direction is health. Another one is sustainability. Folks who care about animal welfare are also very passionate, though they are a smaller percentage of the population.

When it comes to the nutritional make-up of our products, in many ways ours are equal or stronger, but it many ways ours are different. In terms of being equal, we use an algae oil in our products — which is sustainably sourced — and this gives us an equivalent amount of Omega 3-6-9 in the product as to what you find in the fish it is replacing. That has major benefits because one of the great things in seafood is omegas. People don’t realize that fish get their omegas from algae, and we are going straight from the source. Where fish absorb omegas from is where we are getting it, but in its purest form.

We have zero cholesterol in our products. The sodium and calorie counts are a fraction of what they are in the fish, and there is almost no fat. In a full serving of our product there is less than half a gram of fat, which is substantially less than what you would find in fatty tuna.

The one thing you [are missing is that there is] a lot less protein. A top priority of our company is to celebrate the ingredients in their purest form and to not process them heavily chemically. We do not use chemical inputs or synthetic ingredients. We aren’t altering the product in a way that would be concerning. We have a proprietary mechanical process to texturize the vegetables, giving them that firmness and fattiness without using a lot of weird ingredients. To add protein we would have to take an isolated soy protein or something, and we decided that it is not our priority. We will keep our clean, whole foods label on our product, and I think people appreciate that. I think that people who move to plant-based even for health are really excited to see that they can still have those textures without the processed ingredients. 

Meat alternatives (both plant-based and lab grown) are very hot right now in the investment community.  Why do you think there is so much investor focus on the future of protein?

It has to do with two things. First, it has to do with the demand. Consumers are waking up to all of the reasons to move away from animal farming outputs — from health implications in diabetes, obesity, and heart disease crises, to the environmental impacts of water pollution, air pollution, climate change, and everything else. People are becoming educated. They are becoming mindful of the choices they make when purchasing, and that’s creating significant demand for people to move towards plant-based eating.

The second aspect is the financial side. People are now understanding that there are inefficiencies in the current system, and there is significant risk in the animal farming industry beyond harvesting fish in aquaculture. In land farming, we are doing so many things to manipulate the amounts of protein we are consuming, and it leads to a lot of externalities, not just in terms of health of the food, but also the economic implications. What does it mean that we are using so many antibiotics in fish farms and land farms that there are antibiotic resistant strains of diseases spreading and potentially generating disasters for us? If in order to produce so much protein in an “efficient way” that we have to use dangerous mechanisms that could cause long term problems, then the viability of the industry is in question.

We don’t have enough land and grain to keep growing and eating animals as we are to feed the human population at the amount of protein we are eating. In the Far East, as the middle class grows in countries like India and China the amount of animal consumption is increasing per capita, so to counter that we have to address this crisis. Being able to create alternatives to respect, appreciate, and continue to enjoy the cultural traditions like a Thanksgiving turkey or a baseball-game hot dog without those problems is really important. I didn’t stop eating animal products because I don’t love the taste. I did it to make a difference in the world, and I love that I can do so without giving up my favorite foods. 

Tell me a little about your fund-raising process.  What have been some of the major challenges you’ve had in building and growing the company?

We have been really fortunate in our fundraising. We have had an unbelievable amount of support from a number of different areas. We have many wonderful angel and venture capital investors from the sustainability, mission-driven, and plant-based worlds. We’ve also had a strategic investor called Nishimoto Trading Company, which is a publicly traded Japanese distribution firm operating in forty different countries. They are a great partner of ours that is committed to selling our products globally.

We’ve had some really wonderful family offices — wealthy and high net-worth families, and others — who have gotten involved. It hasn’t been a huge challenge for us. It takes a lot of time. People have been incredibly supportive and excited about the opportunity. We are one of the first to market in this plant-based seafood space, so when people see that non-dairy milk went from went from less than 1% of sales 15 years ago to 13-14% of all milk sales today, the potential is so massive.

I like to tell people that in 2016 the Wall Street Journal estimated that the plant-based seafood industry was worth 9 million dollars in the U.S. I can guarantee that this year a few companies will each eclipse that. The market is ripe for disruption and huge opportunities abound. I spend a lot more time managing inbound calls and massaging relationships when I’m not raising than I do having to chase down dollars.

In terms of our struggles, our company relies on whole ingredients. We use farmed produce and fresh produce. We have to work with nature. We have had floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes that destroy crops and that can set us back. We even started growing in greenhouses, and a tornado ripped the walls off of the greenhouse and destroyed a whole season. Climate change is hurting us, but we are resilient and we are working. We have redundancy in our supply chain and manufacturing to overcome those challenges. We are committed to doing things right, and that means working with ethical, clean sourcing and with ingredients in their purest form.

Do you see some symbiosis between what you do and lab-grown fish companies like Finless Foods?

At the rate we are consuming animal proteins right now, we are in a crisis. Anyone looking at creative ways to resolve this should be applauded. It’s not the path that we have chosen. It’s not to say anything is wrong with it or better.

My understanding is that those kinds of products would have tremendous positive implications for sustainability like ours do, because we would no longer be relying on farming and all the inputs that go into that. I think that is wonderful. I think from the consumer standpoint, people have different tastes and preferences and values. Some people will embrace those kind of technologies, and some folks will want to have understood that their food is coming from the dirt from where they have gardened. I think that both those things can coexist.

I also think there will be a cost implication. Lab-grown fish products are not at market yet. I think they will be quite expensive at the beginning, but we would like to see them get to parity. It is beneficial using plants that are so abundant and easily grown, along with not having to use intense multimillion, multiyear R&D processes to get where we need to go. It means that we are at parity or cheaper than animal proteins today — even than the ones that are coming from farmed or fished animals. I think that when those proteins do come out, there will be implications for frequency of purchase.

I tend to think that as the externalities grow on the fishing and farming side, I think that the amount of animal products consumed from animals will be dramatically decreased, and we’ll probably be at a position where only the wealthiest can afford to consume animal protein. There will be very little left and it will be a rare experience for the ultra-wealthy, and everything else will come from other sources. I think that cellular-based cultures could play a role in feeding people, but at the end of the day nothing will be cheaper than vegetable agriculture. We could be the real everyday solution that people can use without concerns about their health or straining their budgets, and I think those things can coexist. The technology and the financial models will be born out, but we are charging ahead and looking to disrupting this industry today. 

Why is it important to have plant-based foods that mimic the taste/texture of meat and seafood?  What is it about that taste/texture that people want/need — rather than just eat plants.

Many people do like to eat just plants, and there is nothing wrong with that. Our product is just plants. People have hundreds, if not thousands, of years of cultural associations with food experiences— whatever it may be. We have emotional bonds with our food. We develop tastes, get used to certain textures, and begin to crave those. Being able to satisfy those needs that people feel like they are sacrificing is a great way of bringing them into a new way of eating.

Many people are making decisions not just based on their ethics but also based on taste, price, and convenience. If I can say not “why should I make this sacrifice,” but instead, “why shouldn’t I embrace this new way of appreciating what I already do and make it better.” It’s really a new way of doing that. I love meat. I love cheese. I love sushi. I want to continue eating them. The fact that I can continue doing so without harm is awesome. 

Do you think plant-based fish alternatives like Ahimi will eventually have a significant impact on the fishing industry?

I absolutely think so. There are several direct ways I see that happening. The first is that prices are getting astronomical for animal products, so we’re seeing the products eliminated from huge supply chains. Safeway-Albertsons just announced they will no longer sell eel. We are expecting the same from Walmart. Twenty-one countries have even banned the sale of it. Bluefin tuna are being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. That price model just doesn’t work, so we are going to see all of these companies stop selling these ingredients. Yet, they are going to want to still offer something to consumers, so this is a solution. There are also functional opportunities. Tuna will brown when it is frozen, and there are many people who will not sell tuna when it’s like that. We are talking to customers who want to use our stuff, not because of the sustainability aspect, but because the product is actually superior in its appearance. 

Another way we see a real opportunity is in protein blending. We have customers who actually mix tuna and Ahimi, our tomato based tuna, in the same dish. This not only decreases our dependency on endangered species, but also decreases costs and improves sellers’ margins. We are in talks with global seafood companies about offering products which include the mix. This reduces costs and portrays companies as being aware that there needs to be a shift here. We are having conversations with arguably the top ten largest seafood companies in the world about ways that they can incorporate our products into their offerings and shift portfolios to be not as dependent on the oceans. We can collaborate with folks like that to leverage their infrastructure, distribution network, resources, and efficiencies to grow. They recognize they have to shift their supply chain. They have to shift their dependence on this old business model. It means we will have a significant impact, and I’m looking forward to that. 

Teddy Mayle is a SeaAhead intern. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Teddy Mayle