Vegan Seafood Is On The Rise, But Is It Healthy? Experts Weigh In.
It’s no secret that vegan meat substitutes have been exploding over the past several years. While tofu, seitan, and tempeh have always been available as plant-based proteins, now you can get faux beef, bacon, charcuterie, you name it! So, it’s only natural that vegan seafood would follow. According to Whole Foods’ annual market forecast, trend experts anticipate that faux fish will gain significant momentum in the upcoming year. Vegan versions of sushi rolls, poke bowls, crab cakes, and tinned fish are already on the shelves, and we can likely expect to see new product rollouts over the year. With vegan seafood taking off, we reached out to experts to find out if this is a trend we should be leaning into.
Vegan seafood isn’t new, but having it packaged is.
Faux fish isn’t exactly new. People have been transforming vegetables into “seafood” at home for years. Trumpet mushrooms are browned and prepared like scallops and carrot slices marinated to resemble lox. Outside of the home, restaurants like Beyond Sushi have been creating magic with veggies for over a decade. But, up until recently, plant-based sushi hasn’t been mainstream and has mostly been available in restaurant settings. With ready-to-eat brands like Konscious, TMRW, Save da Sea, and Seed to Surf emerging, faux fish is so much more widely available and accessible.
Is packaged vegan seafood actually healthy?
According to Kristy Del Coro, MS, RDN, LDN, Culinary Nutritionist and co-founder of the Culinary Nutrition Collaborative, packaged vegan seafood can be an excellent source of lean protein and minerals such as calcium, iron and potassium. Most of the products are made from plant-based proteins, like soy, jackfruit, and mushrooms, which tend to be more nutrient-dense.
That being said, Del Coro says that vegan seafood is often made from more highly processed ingredients such as protein isolates (e.g. pea protein or soy protein), can be high in sodium from preservatives that are added during processing, and may contain gelling agents or emulsifiers (e.g. tapioca starch, xanthan gum, modified vegetable gums, and soy lecithin).
“Soy protein isolates should be avoided based on the research around soy and estrogen-like properties. While we see no adverse risks with minimally processed soy foods, the more highly processed and therefore concentrated the protein is, the greater the potential risk,” says Katie Andrews, MS, RDN, CDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and owner of Wellness by Katie.
If solely eating faux fish for the protein, there are other vegan sources of protein that are less processed, such as tempeh, a fermented soy product that is considered a whole food and complete protein. According to Del Coro, seitan, quinoa, buckwheat, and whole grains and legumes are also great ways to get protein that also naturally carry other essential nutrients along with them.
Overall, Andrews says there isn’t anything inherently ‘unhealthy’ with faux fish, but it is misleading to consider it a 1:1 substitute for seafood. For instance, a store-bought vegan poke bowl has 8 grams of protein per serving whereas a typical poke bowl would contain closer to 20 to 30 grams. Vegan seafood also won’t have the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids that are so prevalent in seafood. The take-away? It’s perfectly fine to lean into the vegan seafood trend, just remember that it’s labeled as “seafood” because of its resemblance in taste and appearance, not its nutritional profile!