If you’re on the hunt for a plant-based burger or chicken strip, there’s no lack of options. Looking for some fish-free salmon, or a vegan shrimp? That’s a lot harder to catch (sorry, I had to).
That may not be so tough in the future. Sebastopol, California-based Sophie’s Kitchen is bringing plant-based seafood to the grocery aisle. Founder and CEO Eugene Wang first got the idea for the company when his daughter Sophie had a severe allergic reaction to seafood.
Wang also knew firsthand about the problem of overfishing: he grew up in Taiwan and noticed how fishermen there were struggling more and more to find a daily catch. “I could see that the seafood stock is really dwindling,” he said. He’s not wrong: according to the U.N., around 90 percent of the world’s stocks are currently depleted or overfished, though demand for fish continues to rise steadily.
In 2010 Wang decided to make an alterna-seafood product to serve people with allergies and also help relieve the overfished oceans in the process. After spending almost two years developing the product, Sophie’s Kitchen launched their first product — plant-based shrimp — in retail in early 2012. They soon rolled out fish filets, crab cakes, and smoked salmon, and currently offer eight products, with four more coming out soon.
To copy the complex texture of fish, shrimp, and more, the company uses an ingredient called konjac, a Japanese yam root. When combined with pea protein and put through Wang’s patent-pending manufacturing process, the root can imitate the “rubbery” texture of shellfish.
Sophie’s Kitchen’s plant-based seafood is sold exclusively in grocery stores, including Safeway, HEB and Whole Foods. As of now, the company’s most popular product is vegan tinned tuna (“toona”), which supermarkets hope will help them capitalize off of plant-based food trends and attract more millennials to the canned food aisles.
While it may appeal to eco-conscious consumers, the “toona” falls behind traditional canned tuna in a few ways. First of all, it’s a lot pricier — roughly two to three times more expensive as the bargain brands (as are all of Sophie’s Kitchen’s products). It also has less protein than regular tuna and doesn’t contain any of those heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, though Wang said he’s exploring ways to synthesize them from plants.
Like the entire plant-based seafood space, Sophie’s Kitchen has a lot of growing and development to do. It has already come a long way: according to Wang, when they started in 2010, the concept of plant-based edibles was “not a thing” — for seafood or meat. But now they’re far from alone. New Wave Foods makes shrimp alternatives out of algae. Good Catch Foods has developed seafood-free crab cakes, shredded tuna (not canned), and fish patties.
I can’t speak to the taste of their products, but when it comes to reach, Sophie’s Kitchen is pretty far ahead of the curve. New Wave Foods is only in three stores, and Good Catch won’t be on shelves until February 2019. Sophie’s Kitchen is available in over 2,000 stores nationwide and also sells in China, Israel, and France.
Sophie’s Kitchen is self-funded and has three employees. The company won a prize of 200,000 SGD (~$146,000) at the Slingshot Startup Pitching Competition in Singapore in 2017. It will also join the inaugural class of PepsiCo’s North American Nutritional Greenhouse Program.
It’s a good time to be in the plant-based seafood industry. Plant-based foods are growing in popularity and are projected to heat up significantly 2019 — and seafood is no exception. With cultured seafood likely years away from reaching retail shelves, products from Sophie’s Kitchen and others are poised to experience some serious demand. Hopefully they’ll be able to ramp up production and keep their hooks in the emerging market.