At first glance, it might look like sashimi. But these pieces of whole-muscle cut “tuna,” made by a startup called Aqua Cultured Foods, are made from fungi, not fish.
“It has that gorgeous translucency and wet texture that you find in a raw piece of sashimi and sushi-grade fish,” says Anne Palermo, CEO of Aqua Cultured Foods, which launched today. The company is using fungi to grow versions of tuna, whitefish, calamari, and shrimp.
Several other startups are trying to replicate fish made from plants—often starting with simpler textures, like fish sticks or fish burgers. But Aqua Cultured Foods decided to use a completely different method of production, arguing that the result can better approximate seafood, including the nutritional profile.
“We’re growing a whole food ingredient,” Palermo says. “Because of that, the products aren’t highly processed. There’s no sodium, there’s no cholesterol.” In a 100-gram serving, there are 80 calories, 10 to 12 grams of fiber, and 18 to 20 grams of protein, along with micronutrients like B vitamins.
The fungi is produced through fermentation, the same basic process used to make beer or kimchi. Palermo, who has two decades of experience in the food and beverage industry, began experimenting with fungi at home as she saw the growth of the alternative-protein industry. “I started to try to grow my own mycelium in my pantry, on pieces of wet cardboard,” she says. “Through one of my many experiments, I started to realize that this could be a real, viable option for an alternative seafood.”
After a year of tweaking the process, Palermo formed the startup in September 2020. Now, as the company publicly launches, it’s preparing to bring its first products to market in early 2022, after working with a flavor house to add some of the enzymes and amino acids that are naturally found in seafood. (The fungi, itself, is flavorless, so the company has the advantage of not having to cover up “off” flavors that are sometimes found in other ingredients, such as pea protein.)
“I honestly believe that has the potential to replace sushi as we see it now,” Palermo says. “It has so many benefits from a health standpoint, from a sustainability standpoint, from an ethical standpoint. And eventually, once we reach scale, it should be able to be more price competitive.” The same basic process with fungi, she says, could eventually also be used to make other types of alternative protein like cheese.