I love shrimp more than most things. Put a platter of shrimp with cocktail sauce in front of me and I'll be entertained for hours. And I'm not alone in my adoration for the crustaceans - we eat over 1 billion pounds of shrimp in the US every year. That's more than any other type of seafood.
The problem: fishing for wild shrimp can be environmentally destructive, the seafood has a carbon footprint that's 10 times greater than beef (which already is responsible for a huge amount of carbon emissions) and the shrimp supply chain is thought to be rife with human trafficking and abuse.
But after trying a lab-made "shrimp" made of plant proteins and algae, I'd consider giving it up the real thing. Maybe others will too.
The shrimp I ate came from New Wave Foods, a startup that just graduated from biotech startup accelerator IndieBio. When I first met New Wave's founders in the fall of 2015, they had been working for eight weeks at IndieBio's San Francisco lab. Originally, they planned to make a plant-based version of shark fin, but ultimately pivoted to shrimp after realizing the shark fin market was too tiny.
The team - made up of marine conservationist Dominique Barnes and materials scientist Michelle Wolf - was attempting to create a plant-based shrimp resembling the real thing in time for IndieBio's demo day, just a few months away. "We analyzed shrimp on a molecular level to figure out the components," Barnes tells Tech Insider.
Barnes and Wolf ultimately figured out a way to use plant proteins, along with the same algae that shrimp eat - the stuff that helps give the crustaceans their color and flavor - to come up with a substitute that has a similar texture, taste, color, and nutritional value.
The fact that New Wave's product has the same high protein, low fat content as real shrimp is a big source of differentiation from other shrimp substitutes, according to Barnes.
In early February, I finally tried a breaded version of New Wave's shrimp. Here's what it looked like:
Ariel Schwartz/Tech Insider
It was a little hard to judge the taste because of the breading, but the texture was almost perfect. The lab-made shrimp had that springiness and mixture of crunch and chew that you'd expect from the real thing. I could see myself replacing real shrimp with this in some situations.
Whether it could replace shrimp all the time depends on how the product tastes without the breading. "Our ultimate goal is to get to the cocktail shrimp level," says Barnes.
Already, New Wave has a 200 pound order for the product from Google, which is trying to cut down on real shrimp in its cafeterias. The startup is also working with a kosher sushi company in San Francisco. Barnes says the New Wave shrimp will be cost-competitive with both real shrimp and other vegan alternatives.
It's hard to say at this point whether New Wave can move beyond the niche market of vegetarians and environmentalists and onto grocery store shelves next to real shrimp, where the company aspires to be. But having a quality product is a good start.