Sophie’s Kitchen heads to Walmart as plant-based seafood seeks mainstream positioning

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While plant-based seafood accounted for less than $10m in US retail sales in measured channels* in 2019 according to the Good Food Institute​ ​accounting for just 1% of the plant-based meat market, many players believe seafood represents a significant untapped opportunity in a sector dominated by beef, pork and chicken alternatives.

Good Catch​ has just opened a new plant in Ohio and raised $32m in a Series B; New Wave Foods has secured investment from Tyson Foods; Atlantic Natural Foods is seeing double digit growth in its TUNO​ ​canned tuna alternatives; Nestlé has entered the market in Europe with a tuna alternative​; and Impossible Foods has plant-based seafood products in the pipeline​.​ 

And while fish is considered to be healthier than, say, burgers and sausages, the laundry list of problems linked to seafood – from overfishing to contaminants, pollution, microplastics, fraud, mislabeling, illegal labor practices, habitat damage, and bycatch – is driving interest in greener, cleaner, and kinder alternatives, claimed Woodruff, who joined Sophie’s Kitchen​ in summer 2019 as founder Eugene Wang headed to Singapore to build a microalgae food protein business.

“This​ [deal with Walmart] will represent about 5% of our store count ​[putting Sophie’s Kitchen in around 8,000 stores] and we’re very excited about it; Walmart is not a retailer you’d traditionally consider as a seller of vegan seafood, so that says to me that plant-based seafood is going mainstream.​”

Algae protein potential

Sebastopol, CA-based Sophie’s Kitchen – which works with co-packers in the US and Taiwan – currently uses pea protein as its primary protein source, but is exploring new options including microalgae protein, said Woodruff.

If you can grow protein in a tank in days in a tank as opposed to months or years, that’s the future.”

Sales are booming right now, said Woodruff, who is currently looking to raise about $3m to help fund the company’s growth and then “significantly more​” in a round next year.

“We’re growing rapidly; we had 3x growth the first year​ [since he joined in summer 2019] and short-term profitability is definitely a priority, which would be completely novel in the plant-based meat space.”

*​Woodruff says this number (from SPINS natural, specialty gourmet, and conventional multioutlet (MULO) data for the 52-weeks ending December 29, 2019) is “low​” as it excludes some key retailers including Whole Foods Market that don’t share sales data.

Formulating plant-based seafood

According to a new white paper​ from flavors & fragrances giant Givaudan in collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley, the top choice for manufacturers in the plant-based fish space is soy​, due to its high nutritional content, functional flexibility, established supply and consequent low cost, and favorable fibrous structure that performs well in the texturizing process.

Pea​ is the next most popular choice, offering an allergen-friendly alternative although it has a more challenging taste profile and higher price tag.

Wheat​ is also a popular protein source, with a low cost, clean taste, and good functionality but with lower nutritional content and issues with allergens.

Other protein choices include chickpea, lentil, flaxseed, faba ​and navy bean​. Vegetables such as jackfruit, carrot, tomato ​and eggplant​ are being used in innovative ways to successfully mimic textural properties in alternatives for sushi and salmon or tuna slices. Seaweed ​and algae​ are another option. The gel-like properties of algae also closely match the texture of shrimp, while konjiac​ – when thickened and mixed with gum – also closely mimics the texture of shrimp and can also be applied to lobster, crab, prawn and calamari alternatives.  

Texture and plant-based seafood

Mimicking the texture of fish is easier to achieve through a wet texturized vegetable protein (TVP) than dry. While wet TVP is more difficult to shape than dry, flavors can be incorporated into it throughout the whole process, notes Givaudan.

TVP is well suited to processed fish products such as breaded fillets and fish fingers, but does not recreate the flaky texture of whole fish. This is still the biggest challenge for fish alternatives and has yet to be perfected.” ​ 

Interested in plant-based meat?​

Join Darcey Macken at Planterra Foods (JBS), David Lee at Impossible Foods, Chuck Muth at Beyond Meat, Dr Tyler Huggins at Meati Foods and Dr David Welch at The Good Food Institute at our FREE webinar October 14:​​​ ​​​Plant-based meat in focus​​​​ to explore where the market is going next.

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