It all started with soy drink. It was one of the products that first became popular among vegans to try to replace a food of animal origin, in this case, milk. With the passage of time, reality has changed substantially. Today this drink is much more popular and is no longer sold only in specialized stores, as is the case with other similar drinks that came later (almond, rice, oatmeal…). All of them were the letter of introduction of a new trend that is increasingly widespread in the market: plant alternatives to products of animal origin.

Big differences in ingredients

Most vegan people do not stop eating animal products because they do not like their taste, but for ethical reasons: to try to avoid animal suffering and exploitation. Hence the reason for this type of products, which try to replace the originals, at least in an organoleptic and gastronomic sense. In the nutritional aspect they are usually very different.

Today there is an increasingly broader offer, which includes foods developed in the image and likeness of sausages, cheeses, hamburgers, meatballs, chicken or fish… They all have one thing in common: they are made from vegetables. Now, among these products we can find formulations with different ingredients, so they can be very different from each other.

How do they imitate seafood?

In the case of vegetable fish substitutes we can find a wide variety of formulations, even if they imitate the same food. For example, one that imitates shrimp may have konjac gum (a polysaccharide obtained from the root of the plant of the same name) as its main ingredient, while in another the main ingredient may be an algae. This is one of the reasons why it is essential to read the label carefully.

If we take into account the main ingredients (always the first on the list), we can classify these products into two large groups:

  • On the one hand, those that contain noble ingredients, that is, those that provide interesting nutrients and are appreciated from a nutritional or economic point of view. For example, legumes, such as soybeans or peas, rapeseed oil
  • And on the other hand, those that are made by compounds of little nutritional and economic value, such as starches and gelling agents; For example, potato starch, tapioca starch or konjac gum.

What are the differences?

Sometimes we tend to associate plant-based or vegan-friendly foods with a healthy profile, but this is not necessarily the case. We can think, for example, of soft drinks or vegan cookies, which are foods for occasional consumption, although no ingredients of animal origin are used in their preparation.

vegan dish that imitates seafood
Image: Getty Images

Since the composition of these products is so heterogeneous, it is difficult to generalize, but From a nutritional point of view they are usually very poor, since they do not provide nutrients of interest. Some also contain notable amounts of salt. It is important that we keep this in mind if we intend to consume them to replace fish, because the difference between these products and the original foods is usually abysmal.

🔸 Carbohydrates

Fish barely contains them, since it is an eminently protein food. However, in many of these products the proportion of carbohydrates is remarkabledue to the use of flours or starches, which have little nutritional value.

🔸 Fats

In fish, the amount of fat depends on the species:

  • White fish, such as hake or cod, has a fat content of around 2%.
  • Blue, like salmon or tuna, has between 8% and 15%.

In vegetable-based fish substitutes, the fat content depends greatly on the product. In any case, beyond the proportion, the type of fat is very important. That of fish is appreciated because it contains Omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for our body, which means that we must obtain them from the diet because, unlike other fatty acids, our body is not capable of producing them. These are not found in significant quantities in the fats that are usually used in substitutes, such as sunflower or coconut oil.

🔸 Proteins

It is the most abundant nutrient in fish and is between 18% and 24%, depending on the species.

  • In plant-based products that are mainly composed of flours or starches, the proportion of this nutrient is practically zero.
  • On the other hand, in plant products composed mostly of protein ingredients, such as legumes, the proportion is significant, but is found in lower quantities than in the fish.

Beyond the quantity, it is important to take into account where these proteins come from. In fish they have a high biological value, given that they contain a good amino acid profile, but this does not happen in all protein ingredients. For example, Soy protein is complete, because it provides all the essential amino acids, but not pea protein..

🔸 Salt

In some substitutes the amount of salt is noticeable or excessive (there are cases in which it reaches up to 2%). For reference, the amount of salt is considered too high when it exceeds 1.25%.

🔸 Vitamins and minerals

Fish contains a significant amount of different vitamins and minerals, depending on the species, such as vitamins B1, B2, B3, B12, D and E, iodine, magnesium, selenium or calcium. However, many of the plant products that imitate fish lack them. They are only present in some products that are enriched with these nutrients..

🔸 Energy

They can vary a lot between some brands and others. In some the caloric intake is similar to that of the original food, but in others it is noticeably different, higher or lower. In any case, it is not the most important aspect, far from it.

How are they sold?

There are countless plant products that imitate the look, smell, flavor or texture of fish. They indicate that they are made from plants, that they are 100% of plant origin or that they are vegan, but Many use sales strategies that can lead to deception or confusion. In some cases flagrantly, given that fish’s own names are highlighted in letters of significant size, sometimes more prominently than the “vegetable” indication. For example, “Merlvza”, which only changes the ‘u’ to the ‘v’, or “Bluefin tuna loin”.

vegan heura merlvza
Image: Virginia Martin

Beyond the fact that the consumer may confuse these products with those of animal origin that they imitate, the use of these names can imply that they are products with nutritional characteristics similar to those of fish, when in reality this is not usually the case.

Currently there is a certain legal vacuum around this type of plant products that imitate others of animal origin, given that there is no specific regulation that regulates them expressly.

But there are several very clear aspects that are included in the legislation. For example, Regulation 1169/2011 indicates that “food information will not mislead about the characteristics of the food and, in particular, about the nature, identity, qualities or composition” and the Spanish Food Code defines “fish” as ” “any edible vertebrate animal, marine or freshwater, fresh or preserved by authorized procedures.”

On the edge of deception

In short, it is not the same to sell one of these products with honest, clear and easy to interpret indications – for example, “prawn-style vegetable substitute”, with all the words the same size – as to do so with other unclear directionssuch as “Merlvza” or “PRAWN vegetable substitute”, which can be confusing or misleading.

This problem also arises with other plant products that try to emulate foods of animal origin, such as meat, milk or their derivatives (cheese, yogurt, chorizo, hamburgers…). In 2020, the suitability of using this type of name when marketing these products was debated in the European Parliament.

Finally, it was agreed that terms such as “vegetable burger” or “vegetable sausage” can be used, but no reference can be made to dairy products, so names such as “vegetable cheese” or “vegetable imitation cheese preparation” are not allowed. These decisions are not final and must be ratified by the European Commission and debated by each Member State.

The three golden rules

Products that imitate fish can be useful in several ways; for example, so that people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet They can enjoy its organoleptic characteristics, which try to resemble the originals, or to replace the latter from a social, cultural or gastronomic point of view.

If we want to consume these products It is recommended to read the labeling carefully.

  • First, to prevent commercial brands from misleading ussince many of them use names or claims that can be misleading.
  • Second, to know its ingredients and nutritional valuewhich in most cases are very poor and have nothing to do with fish.
  • Finally, many of these products They have a considerable pricemuch superior to the originals.