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You probably remember the classic Forrest Gump scene where Bubba Blue hails shrimp as the ultimate versatile food of the sea.
You can barbecue it, broil it, bake it, sautee it, put it on shrimp kabobs…you get the point.
More and more these days, people are barbecuing, broiling, baking, and sauteeing fishless fish.
What was once a pie—or crab cake?—in the sky idea has hooked venture capitalists, sustainability experts, celebrities, and animal-cruelty advocates alike.
“[We’re] out to disrupt the fishing industry with plant-based seafood products,” says Jacek Prus, co-founder and CEO of Current Foods, a plant-based seafood company founded in 2019.
Does fishless fish live up to its early hype in terms of health, taste, and sustainability? Read on to find out.
Broadly speaking, fishless fish is seafood that doesn’t require fish farming or catching any fish.
Jonathan Deutsch, Ph.D., CHE, CRC, professor and director at Drexel University’s Food Lab, says this lab-grown version involves cultivating fish in a lab by taking tiny, needle-sized samples of cells.
Scientists feed these cells liquid vitamins, amino acids, and sugars. The cells multiply and eventually become the fatty and lean parts of seafood.
It goes by many different names, including “cell-based” or “cell-cultured” seafood.
Apparently, the public likes the first option. A 2021 study suggests that “cell-based seafood” outperformed “cell-cultured seafood” based on the perceptions of 1,200 adult participants.
“It’ll be fascinating to see how cultural perceptions evolve,” says Denneal Jamison-McClung, Ph.D., director of the UC Davis Biotechnology Program and co-organizer of the Cultivated Meat Consortium
Robert Downey, Jr. and Leonardo DiCaprio are among the investors in Wildtype, a pioneer in lab-grown fish. Additionally, BluNalu’s $60 million in funding turned heads in 2021.
Whether these seafood cultures are vegan or vegetarian or not is up for debate.
“I don’t think they are technically vegan, though, from a philosophical standpoint, vegans and vegetarians may find these products more acceptable than traditionally produced meat,” says Jamison-McClung.
Regardless, the aim of both is to satisfy more than seafood cravings.
“Fish is a high-value commodity that’s expensive to farm raise or harvest from the ocean,” Deutsch says.
Experts are concerned about the sustainability of fisheries because of climate change, over-fishing, and environmental contaminants—like microplastics—harming fish.
In 2018, the World Economic Forum declared that almost 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks have diminished, citing overfishing as the primary culprit.
Fishless fish looks to fill these gaps, now and in the future.
“Companies are exploring alternatives to fish…including growing the tissue, making fish analogs from other proteins like plants, and even flavoring fruits and vegetables to provide an eating experience similar to eating fish,” Deutsch says. “For example, a tomato fillet can be infused with flavors and look and taste a bit like raw tuna in a sushi application.”
Different brands of plant-based fish have different recipes, but they may include:
In the case of cell-based seafood, the ingredients are simple: Cells from a fish, potentially with some plant-based protein for texture, says Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RD.
It depends on who you ask and your tastebuds.
One Forbes reviewer shared that Wildtype’s sushi-grade salmon tasted like the real thing.
Lab-grown meat first got the go-ahead from the FDA with brand Upside’s cell-cultured chicken. That said, lab-grown, cell-cultivated fish has not officially hit shelves, and Jamison-McClung said the best timeline she could give is “likely soon.”
However, plant-based options have already been tried and tasted by consumers.
Fishless fish is a relatively new commodity, but experts share that it can provide health benefits for consumers.
The potential health benefits of fishless fish may include:
- fewer contaminants like high levels of mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls
- a safe option for people allergic to fish
- higher fiber
Fewer contaminants in fishless fish
“Health-wise, the nutritional composition of cell-cultivated fish is similar [to fish] but is less likely to have environmental contaminants like high levels of mercury that can accrue in larger predatory fish,” Deutsch says.
Pasquariello says this benefit extends to plant-based fish, too. She adds that people can avoid polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), or toxic industrial contaminants that fish ingest, by consuming plant-based fish.
Pasquariello notes that PCBs are more common in bottom-feeding fish like striped bass and bluefish. Farm-raised fish like salmon, particularly those fed bottom-feeding fish, are more likely to have this contamination.
The Environmental Protection Agency banned PCBs in 1979, citing cancer and birth defects in exposed laboratory animals and potential carcinogenic effects in humans.
Still, Pasquariello and older research from 2010 suggest PCBs are still found in fish.
“They don’t break down for a long time in the environment and can remain in the water and sediment for years,” Pasquariello says.
May work for those with fish allergies
Since cell-cultivated fish contain fish cells, people allergic to seafood would have reactions when consuming it. However, Deutsch says plant-based options are on the table.
And fish allergies are common.
A 2016 systematic review of 61 studies indicated that fish allergy prevalence ranged from 0 to 7 percent of allergy types, with shellfish allergies ranging from 0 to 10.3 percent.
Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) estimates that fish allergies affect 1 percent of the U.S. population.
Fiber is an important part of a healthy diet. However, fresh fish doesn’t contain any.
On the other hand, plant-based fishless fish does! For instance, Gardein’s frozen fishless fish filet mentioned above offers 2 grams, or 7 percent of the daily recommended value.
Sustainability is an oft-cited benefit of plant-based and cell-cultivated fish. Truthfully, the jury is still out on it.
“There are ongoing discussions about the energy, water, and natural resource requirements to produce different types of protein,” Jamison-McClung says. “However, we’ll only be able to validate sustainability models once cultivated meat facilities have been scaled up and are producing meat for consumers.”
Generally, plant-based diets are associated with environmental benefits. Fishless fish may be new, but animal protein substitutes are not.
A 2014 study indicated dietary greenhouse gas emissions were two times higher in meat eaters than vegans. The authors indicated that reducing meat consumption would lower dietary greenhouse gas emissions.
However, dietary greenhouse gas emissions make up a relatively low percentage of overall emissions.
Research from 2021 indicates that seafood alternatives don’t contribute to overfishing, and research from 2020 suggests that plant-based meat requires about 41 percent less land than fish farming.
Still, “vegan” and “vegetarian” don’t always equal “green” and “sustainable.”
Soy is commonly used in fishless fish, and while it may reduce carbon emissions, reports, an older 2010 study said that growing soybeans might be indirectly linked with deforestation in the Amazon.
Jamison-McClung shares that, while cell-cultivated fish may blur the line between what’s vegan, it provides animal cruelty advocates with a more viable option. Ditto for plant-based fish, which is often vegan, but it may have eggs, and at least vegetarian.
“Many proponents of cultivated meat are concerned about animal welfare and would prefer not to eat meat that is derived from slaughtered animals,” Jamison-McClung says.
How much would depend on how quickly fishless fish catches on.
A 2021 Good Food Institute report indicated that plant-based seafood made up 0.1 percent of the seafood market in the U.S.
Fishless fish may be buzzy, but there are some factors to keep in mind.
Sub-par and highly-processed ingredients
Like meatless meat options, the quality of fishless fish varies. Some options may be highly-processed or not on par with regular fish from a health standpoint.
“If the goal is to avoid eating fish and eat healthfully and sustainably, the best way to do that is through eating sustainably-produced plants: fruit, vegetables, and whole grains,” Deutsch says. “If the goal is to have an experience similar to fish, but without the fish, there is likely to be a complexity of ingredients required to achieve that.”
He added that some products might include breading and frying to mask differences in taste and texture, which increases fat and cholesterol content.
Pasquariello adds that sodium content might be higher in fishless fish.
Accessibility questions remain
Deutsch says that the plant-based fish options are comparable to regular fish.
In other words, plant-based fish is a steal for people who may have otherwise gotten salmon but not so much if they would’ve preferred tilapia.
Further, it remains to be seen whether or not people will be priced out of cell-cultivated seafood.
Lack of protein
Though fishless fish may have lower cholesterol and mercury, Shena Jaramillo MS, RD says it may also skimp on other important factors, like protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
For example, 3 ounces of salmon has 17.3 grams of protein compared to Gardein’s 9 grams.
That’s just below what Pasquariello recommends.
“I always look for at least 10g protein per serving in these products,” she says.
Have more questions? Get the facts below.
What types of fishless fish are there?
Like Bubba said about shrimp, there are countless variations of fishless fish, like fishless fish fingers, fishless fish cakes, and fishless fish filets. Fishless fish could be entirely plant-based or made from actual fish cells grown in a lab.
Wildtype is one of the pioneering brands in that space and counts Leonardo Di Caprio and Robert Downey, Jr. among its investors. Plant-based fish (think Beyond Burger for seafood) is made by brands like Gardein, Tesco, and Aldi.
Where can you buy fishless fish?
Jaramillo says you can find plant-based fishless fish in chain stores, including Target, Aldi, Walmart, ShopRite, and Stop & Shop. Cell-cultivated fish is not available to consumers yet.
How do you cook fishless fish?
Fishless fish usually comes precooked and frozen. Cook it in the oven, on the stove, or in a microwave.
“Since most fishless fish is pre-cooked, the nice thing about fishless fish over regular fish is that it really just needs to be heated up,” Jaramillo says.
What was the world’s first fishless fish?
Fishless fish is a relatively new commodity. In 2002, scientists shared the results of an attempt to culture fish as a means of providing astronauts with a viable protein source. They concluded that cell-cultured fish fillets were a promising healthy option.
What’s the best brand of fishless fish?
It depends on your individual taste. The cell-cultivated fish have not hit shelves yet, but experts believe brands like Wildtype and BluNalu are close to creating a product people can consume.
Other brands, like Current Foods, Bird’s Eye, and Gardein, have created products that some reviewers swear taste like real seafood.
Interested in eating fishless fish with a special twist? Try these top-rated recipes.
Beer-Battered Vegan Fried Fish from Nora Cooks
Nora Cooks’ beer-battered vegan fish and chips recipe gets extra flavor from panko, Old Bay seasoning, paprika, and a rich beer batter that will give you a taste of life across the pond.
Vegan Carrot ‘Salmon’ and Cream Cheese Bagel from Vegan Food & Living
For a breakfast dish that shakes up a classic combo, opt for Vegan Living’s carrot, salmon, and cream cheese bagel recipe.
Classic Vegan Fish Tacos from Sweet Potato Soul
Meatless Monday meets Taco Tuesday with this vegan taco recipe from Sweet Potato Soul. The recipe includes instructions on how to make five-minute pico de gallo and a creamy chipotle aioli.
Vegan Fish Sticks (with Vegan Tartar Sauce) from Jessica in the Kitchen
Another beer-battered option but in stick form comes from Jessica in the Kitchen. The blogger’s vegan fish sticks recipe includes step-by-step directions for tartar sauce.
Fishless fish refers to two separate seafood alternatives. The first is truly plant-based fish, which is usually vegetarian and even vegan. This fish often uses items like egg whites and soy to create a product that has a similar taste and texture to fish.
The second refers seafood grown in a lab using actual fish cells. It’s still being developed, but experts say companies like Wildtype are close to getting it on store shelves.
In both cases, fishless fish may be a win for health and sustainability, though not all options are created equally.
Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based freelance writer and content strategist who specializes in health and parenting writing. Her work has been published in Parents, Shape, and Inside Lacrosse. She is a co-founder of digital content agency Lemonseed Creative and is a graduate of Syracuse University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.