What’s after ‘plant-forward’? Think ‘alt seafood’

Restaurants are expected to be the catalysts for Americans mixing more sea vegetables and bivalves into their diets. And college operations are among some of the early adopters.
"Alt seafood" could be the next megatrend. / Illustration by Midjourney

The samples of seaweed pesto didn’t move nearly as fast as the chocolate nibbles that were given away at the recent Fancy Food Show in New York City. And trend hunters didn’t exactly need to elbow through a throng for a chance to taste a kelp burger. 

But just wait, says the community of diet influencers who helped stoke the plant-forward movement into one of the decade’s major menu trends. They’re betting a combination of marketing, education and a sense of environmental stewardship are about to turn the consumption of strange seafood dishes into a megatrend.

Just don’t call it seafood. If the trend arbiters are correct, that term will be as off-target as thinking dolphins are fish. They’re striving to replace the familiar label with the consumer-friendlier tags of “aquatic foods,” “alt seafoods” or “blue food.”

In particular, they’re predicting the next big wave in socially responsible dining will be consuming far more shellfish and seaweeds—sorry, make that “sea vegetables,” a term that’s less of a put-off, advocates’ research found. 

Their crystal ball shows restaurants and other foodservice operations being the key enablers. Just as high-end chefs, college feeders and a few environmentally mindful chains proved plant-based fare could be popular outside the hemp-underwear set, research-based expectations hold that foodservice will be the catalyst for broad consumer acceptance.

“One of the big opportunities we saw was to shift the perception that these [items] are only for special occasions, to lean into this social aspect.” - Sophie Egan

Proponents note that the restaurant business already has a jump on the neighborhood grocery store in spurring that open-mindedness. Consumers might not pick up a pound of seaweed on a supermarket milk run, but they’ll scarf down a nori-wrapped slice of eel or a glob of sea urchin from a sushi joint.

Might those same consumers be willing to try an unfamiliar type of bivalve from the 9,000 that nature offers? Or maybe a dish sporting an exotic sea vegetable, given that oceanographers have identified 11,000 varieties of seaweed (though not all are edible)?

Shifting mindsets

Public-health specialists, nutritionists and environmental activists acknowledge that one of the biggest challenges in boosting consumption of a broader array of aquatic foods is overcoming ingrained perceptions. People may not be eager to eat what they normally step around at a beach.

For that reason, advocacy groups like Food for Climate League and Food + Planet are counting on familiar options like clams, oysters and mussels to serve as the Trojan horses.

“We’ve focused on clams and mussels because they happen to be more affordable and widely accessible,” said Sophie Egan, the health authority who serves as director of strategy for the Food for Climate League.  Plus, she said, those foods are familiar to consumers, though they tend to be seen as special-occasion treats shared by a group at a restaurant-hosted celebration.

Sophie EganSophie Egan speaks at Menus of Change  in New York, June 2023. | Photo courtesy of  The Culinary Institute of America.

Her organization has done extensive research on public perceptions of what Egan termed blue or aquatic food.

“One of the big opportunities we saw was to shift the perception that these [items] are only for special occasions, to lean into this social aspect,” she said. The idea, she said, was to foster a mindset that bivalves are just as feasible for backyard barbecues or a weekday family dinner as they are for a 50th-anniversary outing.

Egan noted how her own view of aquatic food had changed as she became more familiar with dining choices she never would have entertained in the past.

“I am now an enthusiastic eater of everything from kelp pickles to seaweed pesto, from smoked-mussel toast to razor clam risotto,” she said.

Egan’s comments came during a keynote address on alternate seafoods during the Culinary Institute of America’s Menus of Change conference, a gathering of chefs, restaurateurs, foodservice directors, educators, and nutrition-policy makers. The annual event’s focus is on improving America’s diet while easing food production’s toll on the environment.

This year, alternate seafood was given as much prime stage time as efforts to steer the public toward plant-forward items.

Similarly, the Specialty Food Association has predicted that increased interest from restaurants, retailers and consumers will make greater consumption of “alt seafoods” one of the nine biggest trends reshaping the food business this year.

What's on offer

Evidence of that sea change was limited during the association’s Fancy Food Show in New York. Although Japanese-style seaweed snacks were in ample supply, other products made from aquatic plants or shellfish were relatively rare on the multiple floors of exhibit space.

kelp cubesAtlantic Sea Farms showcasing Kelp Cubes at the Fancy Food Show in New York, June 2023

A company called Atlantic Sea Farms showcased cranberry and blueberry-flavored “kelp cubes” that can serve as the basis for everything from smoothies to soups, sauces and dressings. It was also the exhibitor offering kelp burger samples.

A European company called Galicia offered recipes for razor clams sauteed in a white brine, along with suggestions for using baby squid and marinated sardines.

The limited presence was in marked contrast to the availability of plant-forward items, which had their own exhibit area.

“We’re still early in the adoption culture,” said Egan.

Seaweed PestoSmears of a seafood pesto were offered on baguette slices by another “ocean farmer” in Japan, Hachiyosuisan Co.

Those early adopters include Boston College, where health and environmentally-minded students can try kelp meatballs, or what the school's dining services have tagged "seaweed-ish meatballs." The meal component is made from a combination of kelp, green chickpeas, brown rice and spices.

"We offered them at one location in a bowl concept called The Cousteau and received positive feedback from the students that have tasted them," BC Dining Services Director Beth Emery said. "We hope to better promote this semester and increase our sales and consider offering them at another location."

Kelp has also appeared on the menu at the University of Massachusetts.

Egan asserted that public acceptance will surge as attitudes are changed through the educational efforts of groups like hers, the Food for Climate League, an advocate of environmentally friendlier food production methods.

“Taste is always going to be key and king.” - Sophie Egan

The key, she said, will be “visibly presenting them as everyday consumable foods.” Plus, Egan stressed, “Taste is always going to be key and king.”

Samples of the aquatic foods available at the Fancy Food Show strongly suggested the movement has a ways to go on the presentation and taste fronts.

But advocates note the strong interest alternative seafoods are likely to get from the environmentally conscious. Research by Egan’s group shows acceptance is already higher along the nation’s coastlines, where environmental awareness and appreciation of sustainable food production tend to be higher.

Because of the many positives, an alt-seafood alliance called the Blue Food Assessment has forecast that consumption of foods from oceans, lakes, streams and aquatic farms will double by 2050.

Egan said her group is already working with restaurants and retailers to determine what marketing approaches will foster that sort of acceptance.



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