Researchers have created a 3D-printed plant-based calamari ring that’s high in protein and looks and tastes like the real thing. The mock seafood has the potential to address issues of overfishing by offering a sustainable, vegan alternative.

Meat alternatives have already hit supermarket shelves, but seafood ‘mimics’ are harder to find. Because our oceans don’t contain infinite resources, and overfishing has harmed – and continues to harm – marine ecology, developing sustainable seafood alternatives is a promising way forward. Of course, they have to be nutritious and tasty to draw a hungry crowd.

Now, researchers from the National University of Singapore say they’ve hit the brief, coming up with a 3D-printed plant-based calamari ring that’s both nutritious and – according to them – tasty. They presented their findings at the American Chemical Society (ACS) Fall 2023 meeting being held virtually and in person from the 13th to the 17th of August in San Francisco.

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

Some seafood mimics, such as imitation crabmeat, exist, but they’re made from minced and reshaped white fish. Creating plant-based imitation seafood that has nutritional content and the required texture and flavor has been more challenging.

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

The researchers had already created salmon filets that are close to the real thing in terms of flakiness and mouth feel by 3D-printing a protein-based ink with a food-grade 3D printer.

“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.”

So, the researchers combined two sustainable, high-protein plant sources: microalgae and mung beans. Microalgae was an obvious choice, given its ‘fishy’ taste, whereas mung beans are an underutilized waste product from making starch noodles, a popular ingredient in Asian cuisine.

Microalgae and mung bean proteins were extracted and combined with plant-based oils containing omega-3 fatty acids, making the resulting vegan paste nutritionally comparable to real calamari. The paste was subjected to temperature changes that allowed it to be squeezed through a 3D printer nozzle into layered rings resembling the structure and texture of calamari.

The real test came next: how would the mock calamari rings stand up to cooking? Air-frying their samples, the researchers taste-tested them and were satisfied but wanted to tweak the product before having consumers try it.

“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.”

They also want to ensure that the combination of microalgae and mung beans isn’t likely to produce a reaction in people with seafood allergies.

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

The researchers hope to develop many plant-based seafood prototypes and assess how they can be developed for large-scale manufacturing. For now, though, they’re satisfied with the product they’ve created.

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

The below video, produced by the American Chemical Society, demonstrates how the mock calamari is made, cooked and – importantly – how it tastes.