Vegan seafood: Scientists 3D print plant-based calamari

“I think it's imminent that the seafood supply could be very limited in the future. We need to be prepared from an alternative point of view."
Amal Jos Chacko
Air-frying a 3D-printed plant-based calamari ring resulted in a quick, tasty snack.
Air-frying a 3D-printed plant-based calamari ring resulted in a quick, tasty snack.

Poornima Vijayan 

As concerns over unsustainable fishing practices and their environmental impact continue to grow, researchers are stepping up their game to provide delicious and planet-friendly alternatives to traditional seafood. 

Although refrigerated grocery store aisles may be packed with various meat alternatives, the options remain limited when it comes to plant-based seafood.

The impact of overfishing, coupled with contamination worries and ethical considerations, has fueled a demand for seafood alternatives that can both satisfy the palate and preserve the oceans. 

According to a press release, a team at the National University of Singapore has taken the reins, showcasing their innovative approach to creating enticing vegan seafood that not only tastes good but also mirrors the nutritional profile of real fish.

Print, Protein, Palate: The science behind

Creating convincing plant-based seafood has posed a significant challenge due to the complex textures, flavors, and nutritional content of fish meat

However, Dejian Huang and his research group at the National University of Singapore believe that a breakthrough is on the horizon, with them combining cutting-edge technology and plant-based proteins. 

“Plant-based seafood mimics are out there, but the ingredients don't usually include protein. We wanted to make protein-based products that are nutritionally equivalent to or better than real seafood and address sustainability,” said Huang, principal investigator of this research. 

The team developed a protein-based ink made from microalgae protein and mung bean protein, which can then be transformed into various shapes by utilizing a food-grade 3D printer. 

This revolutionary ink allows them to replicate the desirable textures of fish meat while addressing sustainability concerns. The team has managed to recreate the flaky, chewy, and fatty textures that seafood enthusiasts crave by layering the protein-based ink. 

From concept to plate: A promising future

The team's latest achievement involves 3D-printing a proof-of-concept: plant-based calamari rings that promise a delectable snack experience. By incorporating microalgae protein and mung bean protein, they concocted a high-protein vegan paste that mirrors the nutritional profile of traditional calamari. 

This 3D printing process not only achieves the desired textures but also brings the product to life, providing structure and visual appeal. The potential applications for these vegan seafood mimics are vast, from satisfying dietary preferences and restrictions to addressing allergies. 

Although there is more to do to perfect the texture and properties of the product, the researchers are optimistic about their future on the market.

Poornima Vijayan, a graduate student and an integral part of the research team, emphasizes the importance of their work, given the exhaustive nature of seafood supply. 

"We need to be prepared from an alternative protein point of view, especially here in Singapore, where over 90% of the fish is important," she warns, highlighting the necessity of innovative solutions. 

With their sights set on large-scale food manufacturing, the team envisions these tantalizing plant-based calamari rings making their way to fine-dining establishments and specialty outlets. 

The combination of taste and sustainability is set to captivate consumers, offering them a seafood experience free from guilt.

Study Abstract

The employment of 3D printing technology using sustainable alternative protein sources can potentially aid in resolving global food challenges by offering customizable and nutritious food products. Recently, seafood mimics using alternative proteins are gaining traction due to the growing concerns associated with unsustainable practices such as overfishing, heavy metal contamination, and so on. Mung bean protein is an undervalued by-product of the mung bean starch noodle industry, which can be utilized for the development of high-protein seafood mimics. Another such sustainable protein source is microalgae, which is gaining interest due to its high protein content and technologically functional properties. We incorporated them into an ink-based formulation and applied them to a 3D food printer to obtain layer-by-layer deposition to simulate seafood products. The printing performance and characteristics were studied regarding rheology, microstructure, and post-processing stability of 3D-printed seafood analogs. The effects of gellan gum and calcium chloride solution (5 mM) in varying proportions were evaluated to obtain a printable, self-supporting three-dimensional structure. The ink exhibited shear-thinning behavior, and it was observed that adding microalgae protein up to 5% further improved the viscosity, printability, and self-supporting characteristics of the printed structure. The research contributes to the development of plant-based seafood analogs using natural and sustainable alternative protein sources via 3D printing technology.

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