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The future of seafood has arrived with 3D-printed vegan alternatives

Amidst the growing popularity of plant-based alternatives, a notable void has been observed in the mock seafood department, despite unsustainable fishing and aquaculture practices threatening our oceans. However, groundbreaking research from the National University of Singapore has offered a glimmer of hope: 3D-printed vegan calamari made from microalgae protein and mung bean protein.

The innovative approach aims to provide consumers with a taste that is reminiscent of real fish, while simultaneously achieving the nutritional profile of seafood. The calamari rings created in this study can even be air-fried, revealing their potential as a delightful snack.

Unveiled at the American Chemical Society‘s Fall 2023 hybrid meeting, the research has received a lot of attention.

“The urgency of diversifying our protein sources cannot be overstated,” said Poornima Vijayan, a graduate student involved in the study. She further emphasized the imminent threat of seafood scarcity, particularly in regions like Singapore where a staggering 90 percent of fish is imported.

Nutritious seafood alternatives

Globally, seafood remains a dietary staple for many. Yet, our oceans are far from inexhaustible. The dual crisis of overfishing and environmental concerns such as heavy-metal and microplastic contamination has led consumers on a quest for sustainable seafood alternatives. 

Though vegan seafood alternatives exist, they often miss the mark in terms of nutritional value, taste, and texture. 

“We sought to craft protein-based products that not only rival real seafood in nutrition but also champion food sustainability,” explained Dr. Dejian Huang, the lead researcher on the project.

Focus of the study

In order to achieve this goal, the team used a delicate blend of science and culinary art. The researchers harnessed the power of 3D printing technology using a protein-based ink, yielding textures ranging from the smoothness of fatty fish to the fibrous chewiness typical of certain seafood. Their successes so far include salmon filets made from red lentil protein and shrimp.

This time, the spotlight was on calamari rings. The choice of microalgae was a strategic one, given its naturally “fishy” taste. Mung bean protein, on the other hand, represents a sustainable and high-protein byproduct from the production of starch noodles.

Vegan calamari 

Once the team obtained the high-protein vegan paste, resembling the nutritional profile of real calamari, it was 3D printed into rings. Post-printing, these rings underwent a culinary test, with Vijayan air-frying some samples. The initial feedback on taste and texture was promising.

However, Vijayan is keen on refining the mimic further, aspiring to replicate the texture and elasticity of commercial calamari rings. Concerns about potential allergies to the new protein combination are also on the horizon, but Huang believes they remain largely uncharted territories at this stage.

Future plans

Looking ahead, the team’s focus is on scalability and commercial viability. They anticipate that in the coming years, these plant-based calamari alternatives could grace the plates of fine-dining establishments or specialty outlets.

“From a sheer novelty standpoint, our plant-based mimic not only delivers on the seafood taste but is rooted in sustainable plant-based sources,” said Vijayan. “I truly believe people will embrace it.”

More about vegan seafood 

Vegan seafood is a growing trend, catering to vegans, vegetarians, and those looking to reduce their consumption of animal products. Made from plant-based or other non-animal ingredients, vegan seafood attempts to replicate the taste, texture, and appearance of traditional seafood. 

Vegan fish fillets & sticks

Made from: tofu, tempeh, seitan (wheat gluten), or jackfruit.

Seasoned with seaweed (like nori) to give a fishy flavor.

Vegan shrimp

Made from: konjac root (a gelatinous plant substance), potato starch, or textured vegetable protein.

Often colored with natural plant-based dyes to replicate the pinkish hue.

Vegan tuna

Made from: watermelon, tomatoes (especially when marinated), chickpeas, or jackfruit.

Seasoned with seaweed for a fishy flavor.

Vegan scallops

Made from: king oyster mushroom stems.

Seasoned and cooked to replicate the tender texture and flavor.

Vegan crab cakes

Made from: hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, or jackfruit.

Combined with breadcrumbs and seasonings for the desired texture and taste.

In addition to whole foods, there are various brands that produce ready-to-eat vegan seafood products using a combination of plant-based ingredients and seasonings. 

To achieve the desired flavor, many of these products incorporate seaweed or other sea vegetables, which offer a naturally “fishy” taste. Some also use vegan omega-3 oils derived from algae to mimic the nutritional benefits of seafood.

Image Credit: Poornima Vijayan

Video Credit: American Chemical Society


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