Fake fish – better for the sea than for health?

23 January, 2022

The fish stocks of the world’s oceans are threatened by overfishing and environmental problems, and in the food market several substitutes for the nutritious fish have appeared. These are often more environmentally friendly alternatives that also do not contain the toxins found in the Baltic Sea, for example. The only question is whether the new innovations can really replace the fish nutritionally.

“I think this is the best thing I can do to save the climate with my resources and where I am in life. I genuinely believe that. Otherwise, I wouldn’t continue with this,” says entrepreneur Emil Wasteson.

Emil is one of three founders of Hooked Foods. It is a company that started just under three years ago, whose purpose is to produce plant-based alternatives to fish.

“We saw a big appetite in the market for plant-based products, and there was a lack of fish substitutes. Then when we started researching, we realized what a big environmental problem the fishing industry is. Both in terms of overfishing and chemicals in the sea, but also carbon dioxide emissions. At the same time, research says that fish consumption will increase by 30 percent in the next 10 years. So that’s why we started, because we wanted to make a difference in this area.

Fish consumption has increased over the past 30 years as well. According to the UN Food Agency, the world’s fish consumption increased by 122 percent between 1990 and 2018. In parallel with this, the majority of the world’s fish stocks today are close to being fished to their limit, are fished to their limit or overfished. Hooked describes its vegetarian product, which is made from soy, wheat and algae, as the new generation of seafood. But unlike fish, it does not contain heavy metals or microplastics.

“We launched our first product in the spring of 2021, for restaurants. It is called Toonish and is to be used as canned tuna. In September, we then launched the same product in the grocery stores, but then in a tomato mess. This spring, we hope to launch a salmon option as well. Our goal is to become Europe’s largest producer of plant-based fish alternatives.

Since the spring of 2021, the company has grown explosively. They have received a total of 45 million in investments from international investors and gone from being three to having twenty employees. A figure they want to double in 2022. Hooked is not alone in the substitute market, which continues to grow. Quorn, Nestlé and ICA have also launched their variants on fish sticks, tuna and shrimp.

Difficult to know what the products contain

The communication of many of the companies that today launch vegetarian substitutes, including Hooked Foods, likes to focus on how environmentally and climate-friendly they are. A relevant communication picture may seem, given that our food today accounts for around a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The Swedish company Oatly has long used the slogan: “No milk. No soy. No badness.” Oumph, who makes a kind of meat substitute on, among other things, pea protein, says that “the climate impact is so low that you and all the other people on earth can eat it every day. It’s epic.”

Hooked Foods prides itself on the fact that its products have 55 percent lower carbon footprint than their fish counterpart, making their products seem like a perfect replacement for tuna – only more climate-friendly. But there is a problem: the nutritional content.

Today, the National Food Agency recommends eating fish two to three times a week, as it is a food that, in addition to protein, contains a unique combination of vitamins and fats that is very difficult to find in other foods. Hooked writes that their product Toonish contains 17 percent protein, while tuna in water contains about 24 percent. But the product’s other nutritional content is difficult to obtain, says Lotta Moraeus, dietitian at the National Food Agency.

“Companies often tend to emphasize the protein content the most, because that’s what most people think of when it comes to vegetarian substitutes. But it is rarely clear what kind of fats they contain, such as omega-3s, for example. Or what it looks like with iron, selenium, vitamins d and iodine that are also found in fish. I guess they haven’t added vitamins or anything like that, because then they’d have written it.

canned tuna
Fish is good at binding nutrients and vitamins, but also toxins. This means that even beneficial fish, can become toxic if consumed too often.

Not trying to pretend that you have the same content as fish

Emil Wasteson admits that Hooked’s product does not have the same nutritional content as a fish.

“We are very proud of the product we have at present, but we also see potential for improvement. That’s the beauty of plant-based alternatives. We can continue to increase the protein level, we can increase the amount of omega-3. But we are definitely without microplastics and heavy metals, unlike fish. We can improve our product forever, while fish have their limitations.

But do you really make it clear in your communication that your products do not replace everything you get from a fish? I think a young consumer, who is newly vegan, for example, might think it’s the same thing.

“We have not done any research on how this target group perceives it, but in my personal opinion I would say that it is clear in our communication that our product should not replace all the nutrients you get from traditional fish,” says Emil Wasteson.

But you’re also the founder…

– I’m humbled by your question, but if people misunderstand the communication, we will definitely change it. We don’t want to mislead and sell the product for something it isn’t. If we get any indications that it is perceived that way, we will change the communication.

Emil Wasteson says that hooked will in the future investigate how they can enrich their products even more, so that one day they can actually be a full-fledged replacement for, for example, tuna and salmon.

lotta moraeus
Lotta Moraeus is a dietitian and works at the National Food Agency. She thinks it’s a problem that vegetarian substitutes aren’t more transparent with the content of their products.

The message: Eat more food from the plant kingdom, but keep track of what it contains

Some fish substitutes today contain algae and are therefore presented as a good source of omega 3, which it is. But there, dietitian Lotta Moraeus raises a finger of warning.

“If you eat, for example, algae supplements, then they can contain quite high levels of iodine. Then you also need to make sure that it does not exceed the recommended daily intake. There is also a risk that the algae contain heavy metals such as cadmium, so you should be a little careful there.

If you do not want to eat fish for various reasons, then she recommends looking over her entire diet, and not just replacing animals with vegetarian substitutes.

– In dairy products, you can get several good vitamins, but if you don’t eat it either, you have to be extra careful to eat products that have vitamin D enrichment. Omega-3s can also be found in canola oil and in walnuts.

Since many consumers today want to eat sustainably for both the body and the planet, the National Food Agency has also developed sustainable dietary guidelines. Åsa Brugård Konde works at the Department of Sustainable Eating Habits.

“What is the main message in our dietary guidelines is to eat greener, more food from the plant kingdom and less food from the animal kingdom. In several areas, it pretty much goes hand in hand – it is possible to eat well for health and the environment while there are some challenges, and one of them is fish.

Fish are a challenge – and advice may change

Åsa Brugård Konde says that, in 2015 when the advice came, they could have recommended Swedes to eat more fish from a nutritional point of view. But they kept it down.

“From what I understand, it wouldn’t be sustainable for the oceans if the whole world ate fish two to three times a week. The assessments made at the time were that it was still okay to give it advice in Sweden, with the addition that the fish should be fished or farmed in a sustainable way, for example eco-labeled fish.

But that’s subject to change. The Nordic countries are currently reviewing their nutritional recommendations, both from a nutritional and sustainability perspective. The new recommendations are expected to be ready by the end of the year, and this time there will be a greater focus on the climate and environmental impact of our food. After that, each country is allowed to adapt the dietary guidelines to its population. Åsa Burgård Konde says that the recommendations for how much fish to eat can be changed.

“It’s hard to know if we’re going to have to change the advice on fish or not. There is a lot of research and development in fish farming, to reduce the environmental impact there. Hopefully, this will help us not have to reduce fish intake in the future.

Since fish is a fin on binding beneficial fats, it is also a fin on binding environmental toxins. This means that the National Food Agency today recommends young people and women not to eat fatty fish from the Baltic Sea and some Swedish lakes more than two to three times a year. At the same time, several fish species in these areas are considered sustainable from a climate point of view. The National Food Agency recommends that consumers should look for certifications on the fish packages or use WWF’s fish guide if they want to eat healthy and sustainably fished or farmed fish.

åsa brugård
Åsa Brugård Konde works at the Swedish National Food Agency and wishes it was easier to shop sustainably and healthily. She would like to see economic instruments from politics for less responsibility to be placed on consumers.

Too much demand on consumers – economic instruments may be needed

Aren’t there very high demands placed on consumers today? That you should keep track of the fact that the fish is not only healthy, but also sustainably fished and not environmentally hazardous.

“Yes, actually, we think that when it comes to health and the environment, maybe it shouldn’t just be on the consumer. But it should be easiest to choose the sustainable, both health and environmental. But then other measures are needed than just giving advice.

What would be the measures?

“Then it might be that you should influence prices. It is outside the National Food Agency, but we can of course point out the need for economic instruments.

Both Åsa Brugård Konde and Lotta Moreaus think it is positive that more vegetarian substitutes reach the market, as the National Food Agency recommends a more plant-based diet, but emphasizes that it is important that you are aware of the content of your food. In Emil Wasteson’s dream world, the world’s population would only eat non-processed products, such as vegetables, root vegetables and legumes. But as society looks today, he thinks the company has an important role to play, by making it easier for consumers to switch to a more plant-based diet.

“It may sound strange to say, but I would have liked to have lived in a world like that. So we’ll see. If we come to that world in x number of years where we do not have the same role to fill, then we will have to evaluate our business model and see if there is anything else we can do to contribute to sustainable change, says Emil Wasteson.

Text: Fanny Jönsson
Photo: TT Bild, Livsmedelsverket, och Hooked Foods.

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