Alternative seafood startups are currently deploying a variety of technologies and ingredients, some using a blend of plant-based proteins (Good Catch, Sophie’s Kitchen, Plantish); some are experimenting with fruits like winter melon (Finless Foods); and some are developing whole mushroom products through a fermentation process (Aqua Cultured Foods).
Regardless of the approach, however, many companies in this small – but rapidly growing – field have struggled to incorporate omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA (something many consumers expect to see in a seafood product) in their formulations for technical purposes (stability) and cost reasons (algal oils are expensive), said small foodFounder and CEO Marc St-Onge.
High quality protein, omega-3 EPA+DHA and seafood flavor…at an affordable price?
Smallfood’s non-GMO whole biomass ingredient – a single-celled marine organism belonging to the Thraustochytriidaefamily, which is not strictly animal, plant or fungal – contains EPA and DHA in its cells and can be added to alternative seafood formulations to boost protein and omega-3 levels, while imparting a seafood flavor that isn’t overpowering, he says.
“The first thing that attracted them [brands making seafood alternatives] is the fact that we offer a cost effective solution for incorporating EPA and DHA into their products, plus it naturally has the flavor profile they are looking for, like [seafood] the flavors are also expensive.
“We provide high-quality protein, EPA + DHA omega-3s, and seafood flavors, while ensuring affordability.”
Small food biomass could also be added to seafood from cell cultures
So how might Smallfood’s ingredient work in an alternative seafood application?
Extruding the biomass powder to texturize it isn’t advisable since the omega-3s it contains are prone to oxidation, St-Onge acknowledged. But companies can combine it with textured soy or pea protein or work with hydrocolloids to create texture.
“We did a lot of research on how to texturize a seafood alternative [with the biomass] using different hydrocolloids in a low temperature environment to preserve the integrity of the nutritional components, but get that nice soft, fibrous flake you get from a traditional seafood product.
Smallfood’s biomass ingredient is also attracting interest from pet food companies and is “perfectly suited to help reduce the cost of farmed fish without sacrificing nutrition and taste,” claimed St-Onge.
A “protein that more closely mirrors the amino acid profile of beef than plants”
Smallfood has developed technology to extract protein concentrates and isolates from biomass, but is prioritizing whole food after interest from alternative seafood companies, said St-Onge, who has raised more than C$20 million to date, and is now raising funds to build in-house production capacity (currently Smallfood partners with contract manufacturers).
“The initial positioning was to grow biomass and turn it into isolated ingredients, but things started to change after we entered the XPRIZE Feeding the Next Billionchallenge [Smallfood and fellow Canadian startup Terra Bio, which extracts protein from brewers’ spent grains, are developing alt-fish fillets as semi-finalists in the $15m XPRIZE competition].”
According to SPINS data compiled for the Plant based Foods Association and the Good Food Institute, the U.S. plant-based seafood market is quite small compared to the traditional seafood market (which is worth tens of billions of dollars) , with retail sales of just $13.9. m in 2021, but it is progressing rapidly (+14%).
The body produces proteins, carrageenan-like carbohydrates and long-chain omega-3s
The organism Smallfood works with is quite unusual in that it produces high levels of protein (65-70%) as well as carbohydrates and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, St-Onge told FoodNavigator- USA.
“We’ve spent years bioprospecting, exploring what the perfect protein is, and wondering what microorganism – the most energy-efficient biological production system on the planet – can produce it?”
He added: “So it required the sequencing of over 20,000 unique microorganisms, which produced a candidate that produces a protein that more closely mirrors the amino acid profile of beef than plants..
“It is a wild-type strain so there is no genetic modification, but there is a process of domestication; we had to learn how to cultivate it in an optimized way to keep it happy and productive in a controlled environment.
High protein foods to order?
Although there has been rapid growth in the processing capacity of plant proteins over the past 12-18 months, microorganisms grow much faster than plants (in days rather than weeks or months ), argued St-Onge, who said that Smallfood’s microorganism can consume many different types of sugars as raw materials, including recycled cellulosic sugars extracted from brewery spent grains.
Labeling: to be determined
So how do you talk to consumers about eating microbes (which you won’t find in the average American pantry), and how will the Smallfood ingredient be described on an ingredient list?
It’s still a work in progress on both fronts, St-Onge acknowledged, given that it’s not strictly accurate to describe Smallfood’s product as “plant-based,” and it isn’t. It’s not a fungus like Quorn or Nature’s Fynd’s “Fy Protein”.
Many companies, St-Onge said, use the term “microalgae” to describe ingredients that aren’t strictly classified as such (spirulina, for example, is a blue-green cyanobacterium, but most people call it microalgae), so Smallfood often uses “microalgae” in marketing materials, although its organization is technically Thraustochytriidaefamily (it’s a single-celled marine protist, another term that doesn’t mean much to buyers).
As for what’s officially on the ingredient declaration, that’s yet to be determined, but Smallfood will likely be able to describe it as “whole microalgae powder,” said St-Onge, who has completed toxicology work demonstrating the security and sets up a GRAS determination.