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Is 3D Printed Seafood the Future of Sustainable Eating?

An airfried 3D printed calamari ring on a sheet of aluminum foil.
Air-frying a 3D-printed plant-based calamari ring resulted in a quick, tasty snack. Credit: Poornima Vijayan.
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Researchers have used 3D printing to turn plant-based proteins into a viable seafood alternative that accurately mimics the texture and nutritional value of real fish. Such high-protein mock seafood options could help supplement the rising demand for sustainable food products and secure the seafood supply chain in the face of environmental stressors and unsustainable fishing practices.

The research was presented at the fall meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), held online and in person in San Francisco, California.

The need for seafood alternatives

For those following a vegan or vegetarian diet, there are plenty of realistic high-protein meat alternatives available on supermarket shelves. By comparison, the number of comparable fish alternatives is still lacking.

But what might currently be a slight annoyance for those with dietary restrictions could soon become a much wider problem. In the face of climate change, biodiversity loss and a growing global population with increased food demands, securing a sustainable food supply is vitally important. It is also important to note that the ocean is not an infinite resource, with overfishing and unsustainable aquaculture practices continuing to deplete current fish populations and harm marine ecosystems.

With consumers more aware than ever of their environmental impact, many wish to seek out alternative protein sources. The creation of viable fish alternatives could help to address these concerns and support the work of sustainable fisheries to meet consumer demand for seafood products, researchers say.

“I think it's imminent that the seafood supply could be very limited in the future,” said Poornima Vijayan, a graduate student at the National University of Singapore. “We need to be prepared from an alternative protein point of view, especially here in Singapore, where over 90% of the fish is imported.”

This is also why, rather than relying on vegetables or fungi to construct alternative fish products, the researchers specifically want to identify alternatives that could provide comparable nutritional benefits to real fish.

“Plant-based seafood mimics are out there, but the ingredients don’t usually include protein. We wanted to make protein-based products that are nutritionally equivalent to or better than real seafood and address food sustainability,” said Professor Dejian Huang, the principal investigator of this research.

Vegan calamari passes the taste test

Huang and his colleagues previously reported the creation of imitation salmon fillets using a 3D printed pea and red lentil protein emulsion, which was able to closely replicate the color and mouth-feel of real salmon. Spurred by this success, the team has now begun to experiment with other types of plant-based proteins with the aim of replicating other seafood dishes.

“We printed salmon filets with protein from red lentils because of the protein’s color, and we’ve printed shrimp,” Huang said. “Now, we wanted to print something else interesting with the potential for commercialization — calamari rings.”

To create their imitation squid calamari rings, the researchers first combined two types of sustainable plant-derived protein: mung bean protein and microalgae protein.

Mung beans are already a common foodstuff in Asian cuisine; their starch is used to create cellophane “glass” noodles, which are popular throughout East and Southeast Asia. Mung bean protein is an underutilized waste product of this noodle-making process. Microalgae protein was selected for this study in part due to its “fishy” flavor profile, which helps to improve the taste match of the lab-made calamari to real squid. But it is also a very sustainable and climate-proof protein source as it can be efficiently farmed in indoor facilities. 

After extracting protein from the mung beans and microalgae, plant oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids and a vegan gelling agent were added to the mixture to create a nutritionally-rich emulsion.

Using a 3D food printer and temperature control, the researchers were successfully able to shape this plant-based “ink” layer-by-layer into large rings and give them a variety of textures to mimic real calamari.

Of course, to be commercially viable, seafood alternatives need to be strong enough to stand up to cooking. Just like with real squid, consumers will want to be able to bake, fry or sauté their imitation squid meat.

To put their plant-based calamari to the test, the research team deep-fried some samples and used an air fryer to fry others for a preliminary taste test. According to the researchers, the plant-based calamari rings were crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, similar to real calamari.

“From a nutritional perspective, our product has approximately 20% protein content, compared to a real calamari ring which has around 8% protein. So, it has more than twice the protein content,” Vijayan said. “But we are also using plant-based Omega-3 rich oils in the formulation of our product and also we can do some micronutrient enhancement to enhance the nutritional profile of the product.”

Will we see commercially available 3D printed seafood?

While the researchers believe that this kind of 3D-printed seafood could be commercially viable – the 3D printer used in this experiment was equivalent in size to a standard microwave – they are also upfront in admitting that more testing still needs to be done.

“The goal is to get the same texture and elastic properties as the calamari rings that are commercially available,” said Vijayan. “I’m still seeing how the composition impacts the product’s elasticity and the final sensory properties.”

Full-scale consumer research is also still pending, which is important as the consumer acceptability of 3D-printed vegan meats and seafood will play an important role in where and how this sort of technology might be used. For example, Huang envisions applications where this plant-based calamari could be popular among people with a mollusk or squid allergy. Further testing would need to be done to ensure that there are no issues with sensitivities to the ingredients used in the artificial squid meat.

“I don’t think that there are many known cases of allergies to microalgae proteins or mung bean proteins. But we don’t know yet because it’s still a new combination,” Huang said.

Moving forward, the team is looking to establish the feasibility of developing similar products for large-scale food manufacturing. If successful, Huang believes that this kind of high-protein artificial seafood could be only a few years away from appearing in restaurants and specialty outlets.

“I think people will like our plant-based mimic. From a novelty perspective, it has that seafood taste but comes from only sustainable plant-based sources,” Vijayan added.

Reference: Vijayan P, Huang D. Effects of microalgae and mung bean protein combination on 3D printing of seafood analogs. Presented as part of ACS Fall 2023; August 13, 2023; San Francisco, CA.

This article is a rework of a press release issued by the American Chemical Society. Material has been edited for length and content.