This 3D-printed fish fillet may not be the reel deal, but it could be a necessary step in sustainable cuisine
'It doesn't need to be the same as a steak. It just needs to be great,' says food economist
It looks like a fish fillet, feels like a fish fillet and tastes like a fish fillet — but this isn't your typical grouper.
This fillet was grown in a lab using cells from an actual fish, then 3D printed into a ready-to-cook fillet — all without the use of a hook, line or sinker.
"To us, it looks exactly like a piece of fish, and I think most of the people who've tried it would say exactly the same thing," said Mihir Pershad, founder and CEO of Umami Meats, which created the fillet in partnership with Steakholder Foods.
Although the fillet isn't from a real fish, it does start with a tissue or small sample from a fish. Pershad said the stem cells from the tissue sample are isolated and grown in bioreactors for up to two weeks, then turned into muscle and fat over four to five days.
"Then, that muscle and fat goes into a 3D printer, and within three minutes you have a printed product that's ready to cook," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.
I think it's a necessary step to wean us off of animal-based proteins, and then we can kind of start to evolve our own new foods from this-Jonathan Blutinger, Redefine Meat engineer
According to Pershad, this is the first whole fillet product that can be cooked and served in the same way as real fish. It has a clean, crisp flavour to it, and its flakiness is as one would expect from a real fillet, he said.
"That was one of the core goals that we wanted to demonstrate, because I think flakiness and delicacy in fish is one of the hallmarks of a high-quality product," he said.
"So this was one of the things that we were very proud to be able to show — is that the product looks exactly like a fish, and when you put a fork in it, you can see very fine flakes and it feels flaky in your mouth when you eat it as well."
For their first batch of fillets, Umami Meats extracted cells from groupers, a vulnerable species of fish according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
This was a conscious decision by the parties involved, according to Pershad.
"Umami Meats is focused particularly on endangered species of fish that are not well-suited to commercial farming," he said.
It's for this reason that Pershad says he sees 3D-printed fillets not just a supplement to real fish cuisine, but as a replacement for some of those at-risk species people might eat.
"We look at species like grouper — which was what we printed here — snapper, eel, tuna, and unfortunately, we find these species delicious," he said. "So, we're going to keep catching them out of the ocean above the rate they can replace themselves."
Sustainability has been a key driving force in the alternative meats industry, including products beyond fish.
"I think the idea of alternative meats … is a necessary step because it just doesn't seem sustainable to raise animals just to slaughter them and use them for sustenance," said Jonathan Blutinger, an engineer with the company Redefine Meat.
"So I think it's a necessary step to wean us off of animal-based proteins, and then we can kind of start to evolve our own new foods from this," he told Galloway.
Mike von Massow, a food economist at the University of Guelph in Ontario, says he looks forward to having more variety on his plate, especially given over-fishing problems and the Earth's natural production limits.
Being able to produce products in a variety of ways "will allow us to reduce the emissions footprint of the food that we are going to need to feed the growing population," he told Galloway.
Convincing people to try it
The 3D-printed fish fillets aren't ready for restaurant consumption just yet. Pershad said they're still working on getting first regulatory approval and hope to put the products on plates by the end of 2024.
Until then, they're going to continue to bring awareness of their products to consumers, which Pershad says is the "biggest driver of consumer perception" of alternative products.
"If consumers have had time to do a little bit of reading, understand what the products are and how they're made, that leads to more than triple the acceptance of the product compared to somebody who comes in blind and is given the product and told 'this is lab-grown,'" he said.
Blutinger, who's also a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University's Creative Machines Lab, knows this first-hand.
Earlier this year, he and his team whipped up a seven-ingredient vegan cheesecake, assembled and cooked entirely by a 3D-printing machine and laser technology — using ingredients familiar to the average person.
"When we were printing stuff in our lab at Columbia, we're only working with ingredients we get from the grocery store because … people want to know where their food comes from," he said.
"So if we're using ingredients that you normally cook with, then that already kind of brings you closer to it."
On top of education, Von Massow says it's important to avoid marketing these dishes as replacements for their real-life counterparts, and instead push them as a "great-tasting, good experience alternative."
"I think what we need to do is distinguish between a great eating experience and an identical eating experience," he said. "It doesn't need to be the same as a steak. It just needs to be great."
"I mean, there's a difference between chicken and fish and beef. Why not a difference between some of these cellularite products?"
Produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo, Brianna Gosse and Willow Smith.