Biotech company New Wave Foods has invented a way to make shrimp out of red algae that look, feel, and taste like the real thing.
Shrimp is America’s favorite seafood. The nation consumes more than one billion pounds of shrimp annually, which works out to an average of 4 pounds per person – roughly twice amount of salmon and tuna, the next most popular fish. Serving shrimp on this scale, however, comes at a high cost.
Environmental degradation is very real, with 38 percent of the world’s mangrove swamps being destroyed to make way for shrimp farms. Once established, the farms fill the surrounding area with disease-filled waste. Inland farms in artificial ponds have sprung up in an effort to save the mangroves, which mitigate the effects of flooding and prevent shrimp from washing away, but the farms are far from ideal, also rife with disease and excessive antibiotics.
Shrimp farming’s labor practices are notoriously bad, with shocking reports of slavery on fishing boats and in processing facilities, where all peeling must be done by hand, revealed by the Associated Press last year.
One interesting biotech company called New Wave Foods hopes to address all these problems in one fell swoop. It has pioneered a technique for making fake, plant-based shrimp out of algae. The algae turns the shrimp red and is a powerful antioxidant. The srimp are shaped like regular shrimp, and even have the rubbery texture and faintly fishy taste of real shrimp. They are vegan, kosher, have zero cholesterol, and are safe to eat for people with shellfish allergies.
In an interview with Munchies, New Wave Foods co-founder Dominique Barnes describes the hardest part about creating imitation shrimp:
“Texture was our biggest challenge. We thought it was the most important thing to get right; then we figured we could make the other pieces fit. When you bite a shrimp, there’s the first snap, then it gets juicy, and then there’s a fibrous breakdown. We spent a lot of time trying to recreate that experience. Right now, when we do demos, most people are really surprised that it’s not real shrimp.”
The Guardian reports that when the shrimp were served at a food demonstration hosted at Google in March of this year, the head chef was “so impressed by the product that he ordered 200 pounds on the spot.”
Are other people willing to eat an algae-based product? That remains to be seen, although there does appear to be a global shift toward plant-based eating. Wired cites Barnes, who admits that the perception of algae is a hurdle:
"When I talk to people, usually they’re like, 'What are you talking about? This is pond scum.’" She says that algae is more—and more common—than people think: "You probably already consumed something this week that has an algae ingredient." If people actually end up liking the taste, it’s not hard to imagine her algal argument getting even more convincing.
When you consider the popularity of nori-wrapped sushi, it’s a fairly safe bet that people will be comfortable with algal-based shrimp, particularly if they taste as good as the real thing.
The shrimp will be commercially available next year in the form of America’s favorite ‘popcorn shrimp’ and will hopefully expand into further markets after that.