In a stunningly short period of time, plant-based meat alternatives have gone from a fringe concept thought to be the province of laboratories to something that seemingly every brand in the world wants to cash in on. To a certain extent, the quest is noble: it’s no secret that meat production (especially beef) contributes to climate change, and any attempt to let vegans (and the environmentally conscious) enjoy a guilt-free burger is laudable.
But with the latest development in plant-based, lab-formulated meats, it’s clear that we’ve flown too close to the sun. Or, put more accurately, sunk to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Why? Because one of the major players in the meat biz is betting big on plant-based shellfish.
According to CNBC, Tyson Ventures (the venture capital arm of Tyson Foods) has acquired roughly 20% of New Wave Foods, a start-up that wants to make plant-based shrimp and other shellfish from things like seaweed and soy protein in addition to other flavors.
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Who exactly was clamoring for this? Great question. But it seems that enough people out there eat shrimp that there’s an audience for it. New Wave CTO Michelle Wolf told CNBC that shrimp is the world’s most popular seafood, because apparently a lot of people out there are bad at ordering seafood. “From a business perspective, it made sense because of the market opportunity,” she says.
Of course, there’s a valid sustainability argument driving these efforts. Currently, real shrimp is both wild-caught and farmed. In the former case, “bycatch” of other sea creatures can harm ecosystems. And despite the fact that their name is synonymous with smallness, shrimp farming means that “large swaths of mangrove forests are jeopardized, destroying important nursery habitats for young fish” according to Forbes.
Finding a workaround for that is all well and good, but what do real people think about the taste of ersatz shellfish. Tyson Ventures CFO Tom Mastrobuoni told CNBC that “I had no idea I was eating plant-based shrimp” when he first tried New Wave’s wares at a cafe in Palo Alto.
I’m of the opinion that shrimp is often rubbery, bland by itself, and usually overrated. Whether or not it actually tastes good is less about the raw seafood materials and more about how it’s prepared. A crustacean canvas, if you will. There’s therefore more wiggle room when it comes to fake shrimp, because it can mostly be a rubbery mess as long as you season it right. A plant-based shrimp purveyor has a reasonable case to blame the end user if their product isn’t delicious.
Ultimately, the real test will be whether New Wave’s shrimp can stand up to the scrutiny of Po Boy and gumbo aficionados who might have a stroke if you told them the shrimp they’re eating is actually made out of seaweed. If you ever see fake shrimp at Bubba Gump, they just might be onto something.
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