Emma Bryce wrote . . . . .
How do you describe the taste and texture of a prawn? Sort of rubbery; elastic, even. Like chicken, only better. These unappetising phrases hardly capture what makes it so good—the precise reason why prawns (called shrimp in the United States) are one of the most consumed seafoods globally. But now biotech startup New Wave Foods is on a mission to mimic the exact texture and taste of a prawn, in a product made entirely out of algae and plant ingredients.
The small, orangey-pink whorls they’ve created look uncannily like the real thing. But what do they taste like? That’s a question for Dominique Barnes, CEO of California-based New Wave Foods. “We’ve done a few blind taste tests—unofficially, you know—and until we tell people it’s made of plants and algae they can’t tell,” says Barnes, who comes from a background in marine conservation.
The company claims to have fully recreated the bouncy texture and fishy undertones of a real prawn: on the back of this success they recently secured seed funding from investors Efficient Capacity and New Crop Capital, which will help get the product off the ground. By next year, they aim to have it commercialised in the U.S.—and already, their imitation prawns have passed the culinary test. When the company presented their product in March at Google’s San Francisco café, the executive chef “was so impressed that he ordered 200 pounds on the spot,” Barnes recalls.
New Wave Foods sprang onto the scene in 2015 with a project aiming to produce artificial shark fin out of genetically modified yeast, in an attempt to make the controversial delicacy more sustainable. Now, the focus has shifted to replicating shellfish. “I grew up in Las Vegas and I had a very bleak perspective on seafood,” says Barnes, describing a place where 99c shrimp cocktails were abundant, despite the city’s location mid-desert, hours from the sea. That’s indicative of America generally, where shrimp can be absurdly attainable, steeped as it is in the country’s culinary culture: it remains the most popular seafood in the United States, with an average four pounds consumed per capita each year. “Shrimp really stood out as this well-loved product, but also one with lots of problems,” says Barnes.
The prawn fishing industry has been at the heart of an environmental controversy for years. Ocean-going vessels are linked with multiple ecological ills, including bycatch, thanks to the unforgiving fine mesh nets used to scoop up prawns from the sea. Prawn aquaculture, carried out at industrial scales in countries like India, Vietnam, and Brazil, also results in widespread mangrove destruction and deforestation. Then there’s the industry’s shocking link to slavery: migrants unwittingly trafficked into the industry, typically in Asia, are forced to work on fishing boats and farms, enduring brutal conditions with little hope of escape. It’s this backlog of human rights abuses that make prawns so abundant and affordable in many parts of the world.
“There are many growing concerns associated with imported, farm-raised shrimp, as well as the devastating human trafficking on certain foreign shrimp vessels and farms around the world,” says Kimberly Warner, senior scientist at ocean advocacy non-profit Oceana, who also produced a report in 2014 on the widespread mislabelling of shrimp in the U.S. Barnes, who felt the solutions to these problems “were moving slower than we needed them to,” sees synthetic prawns as a way to take some pressure off the oceans.
The prawns are made completely without animal cells: the recipe blends plant ingredients with red algae, which gives the product its realistic coral hue. While the company can’t share the finer details of their technique—pioneered by the company’s materials scientist and co-founder Michelle Wolf—Barnes says it involves pinpointing the building blocks of the food they’re trying to replicate, and searching for replacements in a wide range of algae and plants. “It’s really about understanding what creates the texture properties of shrimp, and then looking for molecules that mimic that,” she says.
In the lab, they use machines to rigorously test the tensile strength, elasticity, and texture of the synthetic prawn to make sure it comes as close as possible to the real thing. “But really there’s no better tool to measure texture than a mouth,” says Barnes. “So there’s a lot of taste testing!”
Producing over 6 million tonnes annually, the global prawn industry is massive; of course, replacing the real thing with artificial prawns isn’t going to solve the industry’s myriad problems. It’s also important that resources continue to be channelled into improving prawn fisheries and farming in the U.S. and elsewhere, Warner says. “Wild-caught, domestic shrimp has the potential to be a safe and sustainable choice if the U.S. seafood and fishing industries just make a few simple changes,” she says—like improving seafood traceability, and upgrading trawl nets so they snare less bycatch.
Food forecasts indicate in any case that the future is ripe for animal protein analogues, whether as a replacement, or an addition to the real thing. But will a shrimp-obsessed nation be likely to welcome imitation shellfish into their homes?
Barnes thinks so, though not necessarily due to shattering revelations of slavery and the industry’s environmental impact, so much as the product’s health benefits. “Globally, one of the top trends overall is people moving towards plant-based diets,” she says. “What’s more personal than your health, right? I think that benefit of the product will resonate with the most people.”
Next year, the company plans to debut commercially with small breaded prawns, known as the wildly popular ‘popcorn shrimp’ in the U.S. In the future, they hope to bring the product to other parts of the world, too. “Just give people an easy way to make a change, and they’re doing this for themselves and the environment,” says Barnes.
Source: The Guardian
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