Meet the UC-Berkeley Professor Who Developed a Course Where Students Create Fake Seafood

Teams of students will compete to create new realistic textures for faux seafood, all in hopes of claiming a $5,000 prize.
January 30, 2017, 6:00pm
Photo via Flickr user George Alexander Ishida Newman

Students at University of California, Berkeley will have an interesting new opportunity this semester that goes well beyond the average college curriculum: attempting to develop new plant-based meat products.

At the intersection of food technology, entrepreneurship, and public health, a new semester-long course from UCB's Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology will address the growing need for new meat alternatives. The class will be led by UCB professors Ricardo San Martin and Anne Fletcher, in association with the Good Food Institute, an organization that helps to fund research and policy initiatives for alternative food solutions.

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A second, shorter version of that class will launch in early March and give students the specific task of helping to solve problems associated with creating realistic meatless seafood products. Teams of students will compete to create new realistic textures for faux seafood, all in hopes of claiming a $5,000 prize and the chance to pitch their products to potential investors. MUNCHIES recently spoke to Professor San Martin to talk about these innovative new courses.

MUNCHIES: Is this the first time a university has done a course focusing on developing plant-based food? Ricardo San Martin: Yes. To the best of our knowledge Berkeley's Challenge Lab is the world's first course focusing on plant-based meats. It makes sense for the university system to begin exploring this rapidly growing social enterprise within its curriculum. Universities can play a pivotal role in encouraging students to engage in this thriving market sector.

What do you hope you'll be able to accomplish? This course challenges students to come up with a real-world solution that can succeed on the market. Plant-based meats are a solution for the two biggest questions in foodtech: One, How are we going to sustainably feed 9.7 billion people by 2050? And, two: What are we going to do about greenhouse gas emissions from food production? In the Challenge Lab, students are given a powerful opportunity to make a meaningful impact in the world and come up with fresh and scalable solutions.

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Why is food texture, (in this case developing fish-like food textures), so important to the eating experience? A very important part of the pleasure of eating is mastication, since it helps disintegrate the food structure and causes the slow release of juices and flavor. This is directly related to the texture and composition of the food. While most of us think of flavor as the most important aspect of food, texture can make or break the eating experience. Texture doesn't just determine a food's acceptability, it's also essential for identifying it. Seafood products each have incredibly distinct textures from the flakiness of tilapia to the subtle chew of shrimp. Flavor alone is not enough. To produce a truly successful replacement for animal meat, plant-based meats have to deliver on texture.

MORE: Watch Momofuku Cook Impossible Foods' Plant-Based Burger that 'Bleeds'

What is the manufacturing process like to create unique textures for plant-based meats? Present production processes involve the use of protein isolates (i.e. soy) which require energy and the use of organic solvents for its production. These protein-isolates must be re-structured and combined with other ingredients to achieve meat-like texture and properties. Typically, texturizing occurs in an extruder; however, manufacturers, biochemists, and engineers are developing novel ways to replicate the texture of meat with plants. New Wave Foods, a Bay Area startup, dips its algae-based shrimp in a bath of active calcium ions to replicate the chewy crunch of shrimp.

READ MORE: Are These Insanely Realistic Fake Shrimp the Future of Sustainable Seafood?

Why is this program specifically targeting seafood substitutes? The first is that fish presents unique challenges when it comes to texture, and we expect students to approach these challenges with fresh eyes. Secondly, and more importantly, fishing exerts significant pressure on marine ecosystems globally, limiting both biodiversity and the ability of the international community to meet its sustainability goals. This is an area where students can use their creativity, engineering, and entrepreneurial skills to make a tremendous positive impact on the global food supply by developing a product that gives our oceans a break, while simultaneously tapping into an enormous market opportunity.

Are there any existing plant-based seafood substitutes that your team enjoys? Gardein's fishless filets are a textural masterpiece! Gardein was able to replicate the flavor and flaky texture of fish with phenomenal accuracy, and its "fishless filets" rival any animal-based fish and chips dish.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.