Both plant-based and cell-cultured seafood are well positioned to appeal to consumers as long as the products compare favorably with the flavor and texture of conventional seafood, according to new research released Thursday by alternative-protein nonprofit the Good Food Institute (GFI).

The findings are part of a survey of 2,500 US residents between the ages of 18 and 65.

"Alternative seafood is a clear market opportunity," according to GFI's Choosing alternative seafood: Key insights from research on consumer needs, preferences, and motivations report.

"While seafood and shellfish make up about 20 percent of the total conventional meat and seafood market, plant-based seafood accounts for just 1 percent of dollar sales of the total plant-based meat and seafood market," the report said.

The overall retail market for plant-based foods in the United States is now worth $7 billion (€5.9 billion), up from $5.5 billion (€4.6 billion) in 2019. Sales of plant-based seafood climbed 23 percent in 2020 to $12 million (€10 million), according to Michael Robbins of the Plant Based Foods Association.

The report found that greater awareness among consumers of plant-based and cell-cultured seafood is key to boosting sales.

While 87 percent of the consumers surveyed said they are familiar with plant-based beef, just 62 percent said they were aware of plant-based seafood alternatives.

After learning about plant-based and cell-cultured seafood, 42 percent of consumers found plant-based seafood appealing and 43 percent would consider purchasing it in the future. Thirty-five percent of respondents found cell-cultured seafood appealing and 38 percent would consider purchasing it in the future.

As expected, consumers who identify primarily as omnivores are the least likely to be interested in alternative seafood options, while flexitarians, pescatarians and vegetarians show the most interest.

"In the long term, capturing the omnivore segment will require providing consumers with a truly familiar product," the report found.

Assuming products appeal to all consumers on sensory characteristics, the health and environmental benefits of alternative seafood can bring early adopters into the category, according to the report.

"Consumers are most interested in the plastic pollution reduction potential of alternative seafood, followed by saving ocean habitats and reducing harm to marine animals.

"The most compelling environmental messaging is on ocean health and the reduction of overfishing, while the most compelling health benefits are around protein and omega-3 fatty acids," according to the report.

"Once consumers have a positive impression of alternative seafood flavor, messaging focused on these benefits is likely to make products more appealing to consumers."

Do seafood eaters want alternative seafood?

The GFI's report's findings amplify a study of seafood consumers' attitudes toward plant-based and cell-cultured seafood alternatives.

The Power of Seafood 2021 report released in February found a majority (59 percent) of frequent seafood consumers -- those who eat seafood at least twice a week -- say they are likely to try plant-based seafood. Only around one-third of occasional seafood consumers -- who eat seafood once a month to one time per week -- are likely to give plant-based seafood a try, the report found.

The typical plant-based seafood consumer is male, affluent (with household income exceeding $105,000 annually), has a college degree and is likely to have children.

A majority (58 percent) of those interested in plant-based fish and shellfish have been eating more seafood during the pandemic, and 56 percent of them say they have been eating new and different types of seafood during the pandemic.

Gaining momentum

A number of startups and seafood giants have announced plans to roll out plant-based seafood alternatives in recent years.

Novish, the plant-based seafood substitute brand founded by former top executive at Dutch shrimp giant Klaas Puul and Mowi Consumer Products, was launched in December 2019.

International food and beverage giant Nestlé in August launched a plant-based alternative to tuna, its first move into the growing market for plant-based seafood alternatives.

Gathered Foods, makers of Good Catch plant-based seafood products, opened a new, dedicated production plant in Heath, Ohio, last year. The company has a joint distribution venture with Bumble Bee Foods, as well as backing from celebrities Woody Harrelson, Shailene Woodley, Paris Hilton and Lance Bass.

In April, cell-based seafood startup BlueNalu reached an agreement with seafood giant Thai Union and Japanese industrial conglomerate Mitsubishi to explore the potential for the group's cell-based products in the Asian market.

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