future of protein production with plates with healthy food and protein

How alt seafood could give the oceans a chance to recover naturally and organically

April 24, 2023

Originally from Denmark, Nikita Michelsen was actually raised on Sweden’s coast so has seen first-hand how the degradation of our oceans impacts local fishing communities as well as the availability of fresh seafood.

“Factors such as warming temperatures, the prevalence of microplastics, contaminants, pharmaceuticals, and disease, all have a significant impact on filter feeders and entire ecosystems especially,” suggests the Founder & CEO of the Raleigh, North Carolina-based, Pearlita Foods, which surfaced to much acclaim in 2022 with a cell-cultured plant-based oyster.

Developing plant-based alternatives to seafood is a “crucial step in addressing these issues” and “giving the ocean a chance to recover naturally and organically”, believes Michelsen (a self-confessed ‘reducetarian’) when asked what drives her passion in this space. “Overfishing and destructive methods such as dredging have put enormous pressure on the ocean’s resources, making seafood less accessible and more expensive over time,” she adds. “We hope to help reduce this pressure and promote a more balanced and environmentally friendly food system.”

Pearlita stands out in the alt seafood crowd by not only focusing its R&D efforts on shellfish but also by combining plant-based and cell-cultured technologies to bring to market hybrid products that look and taste as close to the real deal as the very latest biotechnologies will allow. Last year, the company announced a cell-cultured oyster prototype featuring a mushroom and seaweed base that, for added authenticity, even came replete with a biodegradable shell that could be opened just like a real oyster yet without the need for a shucking knife. In the future, Michelsen says Pearlita will turn its attention to squid and scallops, too.

So, why shellfish and why, more specifically, oysters? For starters, oyster reefs are among the most imperiled marine habitats on the planet, with an astonishing 85-90% of wild reefs lost over the past century alone. Americans also eat roughly two billion oysters every year. Pearlita’s goal is to supplement sustainable aquaculture practices and contribute toward reducing what Michelsen says is a growing demand-supply gap. “By offering plant-based alternatives to shellfish, we strive to offer a sustainable and scalable solution to the increasing demand for seafood without harming the environment,” she says.

Developing a high-quality plant-based seafood alternative is no easy feat though. Pearlita’s team spent countless months conducting experiments and trusted tastings with consumers, chefs, and restaurants to perfect the texture, appearance, and taste. “We are proud to say that we successfully overcame those initial challenges and have created a product that meets our high standards,” Michelsen reports. Indeed, among the company’s many milestones, she highlights one of the most recent as the most significant. “Our plant-based oysters will be available at the highly regarded James Beard-nominated restaurant, Fern, in the city of Charlotte in April. We are excited to see them gaining traction and making a positive impact in the culinary world.”

Michelsen says one of the interesting challenges is making alternative seafood taste fresh like the sea yet without the fishy off-taste, which is something she and her team are very aware of and work hard to perfect. “Additionally,” she adds, “seafood has in recent years gotten the reputation of being the healthiest protein – the main reason pescatarian diets gained in popularity.

“Unfortunately,” she continues, “as the state of the ocean declines due to human intervention, health benefits are challenged by contaminants and disease.”

Warnings range from contracting the foodborne illness, vibriosis – which has increased threefold in the past decade and has led to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warning against eating raw shellfish – to mercury, which prevents pregnant women from consuming seafood. “Consumer education around this area will be a challenge and I believe transparency in both ingredients and processing will be key to overcome it,” says Michelsen.

If alternative seafoods are to really take off, though, they will need to be a readily available product on the shelf next to traditional seafood. For that to happen, Michelsen says we need solid taste, to reach price parity, be easily accessible and make sure consumers get all the nutrients they need. “The cool thing about alternative proteins is that we will be able to make more nutrient-dense products and ensure consistently great-tasting seafood whenever you want it, without seasonal or geographical limitations.”

On the cost front, Michelsen is pleased to disclose that Pearlita’s plant-based offerings have already reached price parity with their wild and farmed equivalents. “We achieved that by strategically choosing premium-priced proteins, which are typically served in smaller sizes due to their high price point and complex and unique flavor profile.”

Oysters have long been ubiquitous along the North Carolina coast and the Tar Heel State’s oyster industry is growing, with both wild-caught and farm-raised oysters on the increase. But what does the conventional sector think of this new alternative that Pearlita is developing? “During our R&D process, we have worked closely with shellfish farmers, and to our surprise, they have expressed enthusiasm for our products,” Michelsen reveals. “They recognize that climate change is significantly impacting their industry and support seafood alternatives.”

Michelsen acknowledges the growing demand for shellfish but believes current practices are only meeting ~25% of that demand. “By providing an alternative, we see ourselves as allies in meeting the growing consumer demand for seafood without putting further strain on the environment and ecosystem.”

Although shellfish farming, especially oyster farming, is often touted as a sustainable and environmentally friendly way to produce protein, Michelsen believes we must also consider the potential negative impacts on seagrass growth and carbon capture. “Oyster farming usually results in a net removal of nutrients from the water column, which can lead to reduced phytoplankton blooms and subsequently, lower oxygen levels,” she says. “Additionally, oysters can compete with other organisms, most importantly seagrasses, for space and nutrients, and this competition can cause environmental damage.”

Seagrass is a crucial ecosystem that plays a significant role in carbon capture. Globally, seagrass captures carbon up to 35 times faster than tropical rainforests and accounts for 10-18% of total ocean carbon storage despite covering less than 0.1% of the seafloor. However, seagrass is highly sensitive to changes in water quality and can be negatively impacted by excess nutrients, sedimentation, and shading. “In areas where oyster farming is prevalent, such as the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, seagrass populations have declined significantly over the past few decades,” Michelsen reveals. “This decline is likely due to nutrient removal by oysters, as well as the physical disturbance caused by oyster farming activities.

In an industry where the driving forces can be many and varied for company founders, Michelsen simply believes animals have a greater purpose way beyond being mere sources of food. As far as oysters go, did you know that they can live up to 20 years in the wild yet when they are farmed they are typically harvested after only one year? “They have the capability to continue supporting ecosystems for many more years – allowing natural habitats to recover and bring in more biodiversity. So, restoration and conserving biodiversity for future generations is a main driver for me being a reducetarian and creating alternative seafood solutions.”

This article is an extract from the huge feature on alternative seafoods in the April/May edition of Protein Production Technology International. To subscribe to the magazine free of charge, please click here

If you have any questions or would like to get in touch with us, please email info@futureofproteinproduction.com

About the Speaker

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse varius enim in eros elementum tristique. Duis cursus, mi quis viverra ornare, eros dolor interdum nulla, ut commodo diam libero vitae erat. Aenean faucibus nibh et justo cursus id rutrum lorem imperdiet. Nunc ut sem vitae risus tristique posuere.

Every week, you’ll receive a compilation of the latest breakthroughs from the global alternative proteins sector, covering plant-based, fermentation-derived and cultivated proteins.
By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.