Fin-free tuna: Vgarden turns tide on overfishing with alternative canned kitchen staple
09 Jan 2023 --- Vgarden, a food tech start-up based in Israel, has unveiled vegan tinned tuna made using pea protein. The tuna analog is crafted to satisfy the appetites of the growing pool of sustainability-driven consumers by bringing to the table its creative response to the issue of the overfished and rapidly declining ocean populations of wild tuna.
The product has the same appearance, texture and flavor as the canned kitchen staple, according to Vgarden.
Tinned tuna is the company’s first product in this category. Vgarden is already in the final stages of developing four more products in the fish alternatives space, which the company expects to announce by the end of this year.
Speaking to FoodIngredientsFirst, Omer Eliav, head of R&D and co-founder of the business, says the biggest challenge in creating an identical tinned tuna is to provide the complete sensory experience of taste, texture and smell.
“We want to make it accessible to all consumers, not just vegan. It took us a lot of experiments and tasting to get the exact look and feel of tuna. In addition, we decided to clean up the label from unwanted additives and keep just a short list of ingredients.”
“Tinned tuna has a very distinct flaky, yet moist and chewy texture, with a powerful fresh-from-the sea aroma,” explains Ilan Adut, CEO of Vgarden.
“For our plant-based creation to serve as a true substitute, even beyond compellingly mimicking all of the sensory qualities, it also has to match tuna as much as possible in nutritional value.”
Scaling affordable products
A major challenge in creating plant-based tuna is the scalability that allows Vgarden to offer affordable products.
“We examined many ingredients and processes to create the products, but some were too expensive or did not match mass production. Recently, we filed a patent for the innovative formula and process,” continues Eliav.
The start-up’s first development goal was to create a highly nutritious and sustainable product. As canned tuna is well-known for its high protein content, this became the company’s starting point.
“Our plant-based tuna is free of microplastics, mercury and cholesterol. It is high in protein and contains only seven natural ingredients. We are now working to fortify our novel tuna with omega 3 fatty acids,” he says.
Leveraging pea protein
The start-up developed its plant-based tuna formula after 12 months of experimentation with ingredients and processes.
Vgarden’s tuna analog is based on pea protein, with a total protein content of 11.2% to 14%, before and after filtration.
It contains a short list of natural ingredients, including fibers and sunflower oil.
Vgarden’s tuna-free product contains no toxic metals, microplastics and other ocean pollutants. Its proprietary manufacturing process uses only minimal energy consumption and water, lifting the burden on marine life and bringing a highly sustainable and guilt-free seafood option to consumers.
The private-label product is already being rolled out in the retail and foodservice sectors. It is available in two packaging formats: pouches for chilled storage and actual tins to give the authentic tuna experience and facilitate non-chilled storage.
Vgarden wanted to develop a tuna that could be canned and sterilized at high temperatures yet retain its full flavor and texture.
Market demand for fish analogs
Entire ecosystems are affected by overfishing, not just single species. “When one species deteriorates, the whole system goes,” Eliav notes.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, people eat significantly more fish than they used to. “They are eating twice as many fish as they were 50 years ago,” he adds.
“Flexitarians and consumers that care about the planet and the ocean are our main target group. There is also a growing demand for nutritious, better-for-you foods and consumers that try plant-based foods are more open to trying plant-based tuna. Moving additives, keeping only simple ingredients and avoiding micro-plastics are certainly on the table for us.”
“Aquaculture and the overfishing of tuna have had a devastating effect on their numbers to the point that it has put several species, such as the yellowfin and the Atlantic Bluefin, on the edge of extinction,” adds Tom Rothman, head of global sales at Vgarden.
“This poses problems in terms of food security and negatively impacts the delicate and fragile balance of the marine environment. Our plant-based tuna solution can help turn the tide on this ecocatastrophe and contribute to the restoration of the ocean’s wild tuna populations.”
Popular alternatives rise
According to a UN report, tuna is the world’s most consumed fish.
The global tuna fish market is projected to grow from US$41.06 billion in 2022 to US$49.70 billion in 2029.
Europe and Asia are the leading buyers of canned tuna, with South America and the Middle East fast developing an appetite.
Tuna’s popularity coincides with a significant rise in ethically and ecologically motivated health-conscious consumers seeking plant-based seafood alternatives.
Vgarden has already launched a variety of meat and dairy alternatives in Israel under its MashuMashu brand. The portfolio is also offered in several popular restaurant and pizza chains in Israel, a country with more vegans and vegetarians per capita than any other Western nation.
The company’s collection of faux firm cheeses is also tracking well in Australia, Canada, Asia and Europe, including generating interest among food manufacturers and foodservice operations in Germany and Austria.
In October, Brevel, the microalgae-based alternative protein company and Vgarden revealed a collaboration to create plant-based cheeses and additional food products containing Brevel protein. The products are expected to appear on shelves this year.
Recently, Vgarden entered into a joint venture with Cale and Daughters, Sydney, to establish a new dairy and meat alternative production facility in Australia. The plant is already operational and is expected to reach total capacity by the end of 2023.
By Elizabeth Green
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