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Are These Insanely Realistic Fake Shrimp the Future of Sustainable Seafood?

Wyatt Marshall

This San Francisco-based startup has developed a faux shrimp made in a lab from algae and plants, and it tastes so much like the real thing that its founders say people can’t tell the difference.

Americans eat a hell of a lot of shrimp, about four pounds per person every year—roughly twice the amount of salmon or tuna we cram in our faces.

But it's no secret that shrimp is a problematic food. Most of the shrimp we consume are imported from countries like India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, and investigations have uncovered the devastating side effects to our bottomless appetite for our favorite crustacean. Massive shrimp farms have led to pollution and ecological destruction thanks to their use of antibiotics and harmful chemicals, and, worse, many shrimp that land on the shelves of US supermarkets are farmed and peeled by slaves.

New Wave Foods hopes to take on all of these problems in one fell swoop. The San Francisco-based startup has developed an insanely realistic faux shrimp made in a lab from algae and plants, and it tastes so much like the real thing co-founder and CEO Dominique Barnes says that people can't tell it apart from actual shrimp. Their shrimp has proven to be a hit, and it has been served in Google's cafeteria and several pop-ups and events in San Francisco. Now the company is working toward a mass-market release. We spoke with Barnes to learn about how one goes about developing fake shrimp and New Wave's efforts to help save the oceans one fake shrimp at a time.

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MUNCHIES: Hi, Dominique. So, what was the hardest part of designing an imitation shrimp? Dominique Barnes: Texture was our biggest challenge. We thought it was the most important thing to get right; then we figured we could make the other pieces fit. When you bite a shrimp, there's the first snap, then it gets juicy, and then there's a fibrous breakdown. We spent a lot of time trying to recreate that experience. Right now, when we do demos, most people are really surprised that it's not real shrimp.

Your shrimp are marketed as nutritionally superior to real shrimp. We offer a plant-based option as opposed to animal ingredients, and the benefit there is we don't use hormones or chemicals that are needed to raise animals in confined spaces. You'll particularly see that with farm-raised shrimp because they really crowd the farms. And when shrimp is imported, there is very little inspection. Also because we're plant- and algae-based, our shrimp have zero cholesterol. Shellfish and shrimp are high in cholesterol.

We're even shellfish-allergen-free. Shellfish allergies are one of the top food allergies in the country, and they are adult-onset allergies. So with our shrimp, people diagnosed with a shellfish allergy can continue to eat a food they love. When we were at Indie.bio (a startup accelerator that supplies funding to promising ventures, of which New Wave Foods was a beneficiary), three rabbis walked in, and the next thing you know our products were certified kosher because its made out of plants and algae, which is exciting because shrimp is not kosher. So that's a new market opportunity.

How'd you choose red algae as the building block for your shrimp? We looked at the building blocks of real shrimp, what they consumed. They eat many things, but one of the things they eat regularly are micro algae, and a part of that is red algae. Certain compounds from red algae actually impart shrimp's color and flavor. So we looked at that and found it can actually be cultivated and used in a similar way in our shrimp. It's also a powerful anti-oxidant.

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Do you make the tail, too? [Laughs] No. I think that's an added benefit: You don't have to de-vein or de-shell our product, it's just the delicious "meat" part. No tail at the moment.

I'd hope you wouldn't have to de-vein it. So you've got red algae—how do you get from that to something that actually looks and tastes like shrimp? My co-founder Michelle is a scientist that's taking the lead on formulation and development, and it's a process of understanding how these ingredients behave under certain conditions. So you have to understand how they stick together, how they bind together. Sometimes it looks like a cross between working in a kitchen and a mad scientist's lab.

You've probably eaten a ton of shrimp at this point. It was a lot of tasting. If I encouraged people to develop their own plant- and algae-based shrimp alternative, I would turn everybody off of shrimp. If you eat anything too much you probably won't want to eat it again. Between taste testing real shrimp and our product many, many, many times, I will usually pass on ordering shrimp myself. With our product, I like to just eat it like a snack. It's easy to just throw it in the toaster oven. I like to do a spicy chipotle mayo on the side.

Your shrimp look crazy similar to the real thing. How important are aesthetics when trying to get people to go for faux shrimp? I think it's really important when we eat with our eyes first, so seeing something that's familiar and looks delicious will help us sell something new. We shape it to look like a shrimp because it tells you that this is a shrimp, and the color comes from the same algae that give shrimp its color. It's a very important part of product development for us to have a strong shrimp aesthetic. And it's modeled after real shrimp, so we looked at the different structure components of the muscle and so on.

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New Wave Foods co-founder Dominique Barnes.

Does your shrimp change color when you cook it? Right now we're working on that technology—I think it can come over time. Luckily, when you cook our product, it's just as easy as working with shrimp, but you won't overcook it. When people overcook their shrimp it comes out dry or tough; our product is more forgiving if you overcook it. But we're working on the exciting color change.

Are you going to make other imitation seafood moving forward? We're laser-focused on shrimp right now. We really want to deliver a product that knocks it out of the park. We do want to move into other products that are in high demand in seafood that have a high environmental impact as well, and that includes fish and other shellfish in the future.

Thanks for talking with us.