The future of the fish-free seafood: Aqua Cultured Foods, Interview with Anne Palermo CEO, and cofounder
Aqua Cultured Foods is a Chicago-based food-tech startup that uses microbial fermentation to make fish-free calamari that tastes, feels, and looks like its seafood counterpart.
When did you start Aqua Cultured Foods? Where did the idea come from?
After a career in finance, I transitioned into food tech, food science, and culinary innovation. I launched my first CPG (consumer packaged goods) food company and developed proprietary technology for a high-protein snack that used alternative proteins and grew it to a national presence. However, after learning more about the challenges of sustainably feeding a growing population, I began applying myself to solve a more pressing problem than snack foods.
When I achieved the result I was hoping for in 2020, I contacted my co-founder, Brittany Chibe, an experienced sales and marketing executive for food companies, and prior founder of a grain-free snack company with a successful exit, to help take this technology to the commercialization stage.
What were the main challenges you faced at the beginning?
The biggest challenge was achieving a realistic texture. Texture is extremely important in seafood alternatives, and the bar is much higher than say for a burger or a chicken nugget. I had to develop completely new methods to achieve the delicate textures of a whole-cut filet, shrimp, scallops, calamari. But it was very exciting to get it perfect!
How did the collaboration with Chef Johnny Carino begin?
Brittany worked with Chef Johnny when he led culinary at a major sandwich chain. They worked together for two years, creating new menu items and limited-time offers for the chain.
How did you figure out that fungi were the right component to make these products? What advantages do fungi offer compared to other elements?
I was interested in fermentation because it’s a highly resource- and energy-efficient way to produce protein. I found that no companies in the fermentation space were dedicated to seafood, even though the seafood supply chain is responsible for some of the most devastating environmental problems of our time.
Another thing about this type of fermentation is it results in a whole, unprocessed food. Products are grown, as opposed to manufactured, and they retain all naturally occurring proteins, fibers, and micronutrients. This means that our ingredient panel is clean and simple as well as non-GMO.
When will your products be available on the market?
We are launching our calamari alternatives in 2022 with select restaurants in order to test consumer acceptance. We expect a full rollout of our calamari, shrimp, and whole-muscle cut fish filets the following year.
What could be the price range? Can we expect a price decrease over the years to encourage consumption?
When production is fully at scale, we expect our products will actually be more cost-effective to produce and for consumers to purchase than wild-caught or farmed seafood. That’s part of the reason we’re focused on scale-up, and investigating technology, services, and partners that can help in that effort.
What are the main benefits of consuming your product from a nutritional, health, and ethical point of view?
The nutritional content is going to be similar if not superior to conventional seafood. Per 100 gram serving, Aqua’s seafood alternatives contain approximately 80 calories, 15-20g protein, 10-12g fiber, and no sodium, saturated fat, or cholesterol. In comparison, a serving of cod contains 18 grams of protein, .7 grams of fat, nearly 43 mg cholesterol, 54 mg of sodium, and no fiber at all. We have even developed a way to add Omega-3s to our products to match conventional seafood.
Currently, 90% of wild fisheries are overfished, leaving 170 countries with unmet demand for seafood. Almost one-quarter of the world’s seafood is consumed in Europe alone, even though it has only 10% of the world’s population. And, global demand for seafood is expected to increase by 30%, while the population is projected to hit 10 billion by 2050. Traditional agri- and aquaculture frankly cannot keep up, and it certainly cannot keep up sustainably. We want to feed the next billion people, all while protecting our planet, oceans, and sea life from the detrimental impact of traditional aquaculture.
One thing that’s truly revolutionary about our approach is that it completely decouples the demand for seafood from proximity to a body of water. How many landlocked states and countries could benefit from this capability?
How do you think your product will be received by the public?
Compared to meat and dairy alternatives, there is likely to be more consumer acceptance of alt-seafood. There’s a health halo around seafood, and we can deliver even healthier products, that taste the same, and perform the same. There is also more awareness of sustainability issues in the conventional seafood supply chain compared to meat or dairy. The public has also shown great willingness to make changes in their seafood consumption habits, such as the movement towards ‘dolphin-safe’ tuna.
Which products are ready to be distributed to the market, and which are still in the development phase?
We are working on scaling up to be able to distribute through restaurant and food service partners, beginning with our calamari alternatives this year. Shrimp, scallops, and whole-muscle cut fish filets of tuna and whitefish will be available in 2023.
Photos courtesy Aqua Cultured Foods
Matteo Damiani is an Italian photographer, author and motion designer. Matteo lived and worked for ten years in China. During his stay in China, he paid attention to social issues apparently of secondary importance, but which influenced heavily the Chinese domestic policies over the years.