Deep dive with an expert: Algae’s role in the seafood saga

Deep dive with an expert: Algae’s role in the seafood saga

By PreScouter Editorial Team

Ida Speyer is the CEO and co-founder of Mimic Seafood, a plant-based seafood company based in Madrid, Spain. She has extensive experience in the plant-based sector and as a startup founder, and is highly committed to projects that help solve climate-related issues. She is a founding member of Skovshoved Ocean Garden and owner of Ocean Greens.

Ida Speyer
Co-founder and CEO, Mimic Seafood

In an extensive interview, Ida Speyer highlighted that while seafood has long been seen as a healthier and more eco-friendly choice, recent documentaries, notably “Seaspiracy,” have unveiled the significant environmental and ecological impacts of seafood production. This revelation has led many consumers to rethink their dietary preferences.

She further emphasized the intricacies of replicating seafood flavors. Unlike more robust foods like burgers or hotdogs, capturing the subtle essence of seafood without overwhelming it presents a unique challenge for researchers and developers. Moreover, for plant-based seafood alternatives to be competitive, they must not only capture these flavors but also maintain a healthy profile without seeming overly artificial.

Speyer also touched upon the looming crisis in the seafood industry. Overfishing, habitat destruction, and pollution are making seafood increasingly scarce, driving up costs. This scarcity, however, comes with dire consequences, including the potential extinction of entire species and the increased risk of food contamination.

The following are interview questions and answers discussing the insights provided by Ida Speyer on the challenges and future of the seafood industry. This interview is an excerpt from a thorough report titled “The rise of algae: The future of plant-based seafood”. You can view the full report here.

Why has plant-based seafood received less research and investment compared to plant-based meat, eggs, and dairy which have experienced significant growth in the last few years?

It’s a combination of different factors. The drive for plant-based dairy and beef was the first and the strongest because of the connection of CO2 and health. There’s a high CO2 cost for producing dairy and beef and there are also a lot of health implications associated. These are easy drivers for consumers to understand. Consumers perceive seafood as a healthier product with less environmental impact. However, we now see it in waves with Seaspiracy and other documentaries where you see that there is actually a huge environmental and ecological cost with seafood. 

What do you think are the biggest drivers for the plant-based seafood market?

I think cost will be a huge driver. Seafood is becoming scarce. We’re emptying the oceans. We’re eliminating entire species of fish. We’re destroying their habitats. We’re polluting so much that fish now contains plastic and heavy metals. Therefore, I think the fact that there will be less and less fish will drive up the cost, and at the same time, with pollution, fish may even not be safe to eat anymore in the future. 

What do you think are the major challenges in developing plant-based seafood?

A huge challenge in R&D is that usually when you eat fish and seafood you don’t drown it in strong flavors. For example, when you eat a hotdog or a burger, you might add ketchup, mustard, pickles, and spicy sauce to enhance the flavor, and the end result will be dominated by the taste of the condiments, rather than the original flavor of the food itself. With fish, maybe you sauté it or you bake it but you’re very light on the flavors. It’s very delicate. You try to just accentuate the fishy flavor so your product really needs to be good because it’s not going to be covered in BBQ sauce or deep fried. And that is why we have to spend a bit more time in R&D. Also, the fact that people do consider fish as healthy also means that if you want to compare and compete you need a product that doesn’t contain too many artificial flavors so it’s not too synthetic. It needs to be pretty healthy as well.

R&D for fish and seafood is a challenge because their delicate flavor must be accentuated without drowning it in strong condiments. This requires extra effort and time to create a quality product that is also healthy and not too synthetic. 

What are your thoughts on using microalgae or seaweed in plant-based seafood products?

I’m a huge fan of seaweed and microalgae. They are incredible. They are very sustainable to produce. They actually combat climate change in production. If you grow them naturally in the oceans, they’re providing habitat. Therefore, I think we should really look into more ways of incorporating macro and microalgae in our product developments. In Mimic, we do already use different kinds of seaweeds for flavoring. Our fishy flavor comes from natural ingredients such as nori and kombu. These kinds of seaweeds have a nice ocean flavor. Also, microalgae can be very good for nutritional purposes. It has a lot of protein but really healthy protein and has the omegas. There are a lot of companies now working on white and yellow chlorella which is really exciting because it doesn’t have the flavor that green chlorella has, but then also the nutritional profile is different. There is still a lot to be done from ingredient companies to really unlock the potential of these algae. 

Are there any challenges with adding algae in plant-based seafood?

One limitation right now is that it is still quite expensive especially if you compare it with soy and pea protein. It is a common early stage limitation. Once more and more companies use these ingredients, the prices will probably go down. It is also important to note that using a single ingredient in large quantities, such as nori or kombu, could lead to unsustainable monocultures in the ocean, similar to those seen in agriculture. It is important to avoid repeating past mistakes and use a variety of ingredients to increase resilience in the food system. 

Could you please share any insights on the current trends and growth opportunities within the plant-based seafood market, and whether there is a specific product segment that you see as particularly promising or rapidly growing?

Overall, convenience food is experiencing massive growth across all categories, not just in plantbased options, but also in healthy, unhealthy, kid-friendly, gluten-free, and more. All of these different variations of convenience food are growing very rapidly. I believe that healthy snack foods that are easy for people to prepare quickly, such as frozen or chilled food that can be cooked in two minutes in a microwave or oven, will be a growing category. Of course, there is also a market for plant-based seafood, as it is a consumer trend that is growing rapidly.

What do you think the future looks like for the plant-based seafood market?

I think we will see some startups graduate into global enterprises. Some major food companies might absorb some startups and technologies or bring their own version out similar to how Nestlé has a small plant-based seafood portfolio. The meat and dairy companies have done it already with their own brands and versions. I think the same will happen with seafood. This will make it easier for consumers because prices will be lower and availability will be very high. This will move from niche to mainstream. It will also be interesting to see what happens now as the global economy slows down a bit, because we saw that there was a huge surge of interest for plant-based during COVID. I think a lot of plant-based products are cheaper than the animal-based equivalents. Plant-based dairy is getting very cheap. I am very curious to see if saving money would actually be a second driver for plant-based or if people would become more traditional and return to what they are familiar with.

Joining Forces for a Better Future: Collaborative Efforts in the Plant-Based Seafood Industry

It is a very collaborative industry. We have a lot of internal communication between different companies because we are early stage. It is really valuable for us that we actually share with other companies. We share experiences and knowledge about some ingredients. Right now we are just trying hard to grow the category and showcase the benefits of these products to new consumers.

We should look into more ways of incorporating algae in our product developments. Seaweeds like nori and kombu have a nice ocean flavor and can be used for flavoring. Microalgae is good for nutritional purposes (e.g., proteins and omegas). There’s still a lot to be done to unlock their full potential.

This excerpt was taken from our Intelligence Brief “The rise of algae: The future of plant-based seafood”. The full report can be viewed here.

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