30 Current Tuna
Current Tuna| PMI's 2022 Most Influential Projects | #MIP2022
Current Foods has one goal in mind—to be the Impossible Foods of seafood. Meet one of its first products, Current Tuna. Made from ingredients like pea protein, tomato, and algae, it aims to reduce the demand for conventional, mass-market seafood.
For putting sushi-grade vegan seafood on the menu
The world’s seemingly insatiable appetite for seafood is sparking concerns over reduced marine biodiversity—pushing project teams to find novel (and tasty) solutions. But developing faux fish means exploring uncharted waters. For the duo behind vegan startup Current Foods, it took two years of testing and tweaking to land on just the right recipe.
“I stumbled into an animal ethics course in college and became an animal rights advocate,” says CEO Jacek Prus. As his interest in changing the food system grew, he also saw a business opportunity in doing so. After helping to build and run an alternative protein accelerator, he partnered with food technologist Sònia Hurtado to create Current Foods in 2019. And while many startups push to broaden and scale their portfolios as fast as possible, Prus says an early stint at the popular incubator Y Combinator hammered home the value of niching down and going slow.
Prus and Hurtado zeroed in on plant-based seafood—specifically, sushi-grade raw tuna. Skipjack tuna is the third most-caught fish in the world and a top pick for sushi. So making a splash with a plant-based alternative suitable for sushi menus seemed like a winning way to grab diners’ attention, while simultaneously scoring some points on the sustainability side.
But unlike popular plant-based beef products that have come to dominate the grocery aisle and restaurant menus, sushi-grade tuna is typically eaten raw. Getting the flavor right would be one thing, the co-founders knew, but the texture would be the make-or-break element of product development. “You can’t extrude to get the texture we’re aiming for, because that process creates something far too hard—more like a cooked-meat product,” Prus says.
With the tuna’s consistency front of mind, the co-founders assembled a team of food scientists, technologists and recipe developers to iterate into the unknown. The team collaborated across food labs in San Francisco and Barcelona. “We had to find the right ingredients and develop a process that would give it the right chew and fishy taste,” Prus says. “The process was incredibly finicky, so we had to become really good at rapid iteration.”
The co-founders initially considered sending prototypes to external testing labs that specialized in sensory experiences, “but it’s slow and expensive,” he says. “For a fast product cycle, internal testing is necessary.” So the company upskilled the team, putting everyone through a sensory bootcamp of sorts. “Colors are easy, but flavor and texture are very subjective, so we had to break it down and train for those components—mouth feel, texture, pinpointing certain flavors—to test the products.”
In terms of ingredients, the team ultimately settled on a complex combo of bamboo and potato (for texture), radish and tomato (for color) and algae for a hit of omega-3s and “ocean flavor.” In June, the company began selling wholesale to local restaurants and unveiled its first direct-to-consumer products: a tuna filet (intended for sushi or sashimi) and cubed tuna (for poke bowls, ceviche and carpaccio).
Prus and Hurtado spent little time celebrating the win, opting instead to dive deeper into their blue ocean strategy by focusing on rolling out their plant-based smoked salmon in retail. Farther out on the horizon, Prus sees the potential to develop cookable seafood, where margins become a bit tighter, yet even larger markets are available for the taking.
Current Foods may soon find more competitors elbowing for space on sushi menus and consumer fridges, as the opportunity is becoming increasingly attractive. Globally, the plant-based seafood industry shot to US$175 million in 2021—a 90 percent increase over the prior year, according to the Good Food Institute. Yet even though that growth could translate to more rivals, it’s hard to see it as bad news, says Prus (who counts Reddit co-founder and social entrepreneur Alexis Ohanian among the startup’s investors).
“I just want people to eat what tastes great and is also great for the world,” he says.