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    Pity the tuna, the world’s most consumed fish. It’s not only tasty, it’s a relatively inexpensive source of protein. Humans eat around one billion pounds of canned and packaged tuna per year, in everything from salade niçoise to vitello tonnato to gooey tuna melts.

    However, the fish’s immense popularity comes at a price. Overfishing is one: according to the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, 13% of tuna stocks are caught more quickly than they can be replenished. Bycatch is another major issue—untargeted species, such as turtles, dolphins, or other fish, are caught in longlines or nets meant for tuna, their carcasses thrown back into the ocean. People are also victims of the tuna industry, as human rights abuses, including slavery, occur on fishing boats that travel far out to sea.

    Fortunately for tuna lovers, a startup from Berlin, BettaF!sh, has come up with a plant-based product that allows people to eat an ocean-friendly “TU-NAH” alternative without any of the industry’s problems. Better yet, it’s made from seaweed.

    In 2023, the German startup was a finalist in European Investment Bank Institute’s Social Innovation Tournament, which recognises innovative companies making a social, ethical, or environmental impact.


    Made with microalgae

    “Seaweed is an amazing ingredient,” says Lilith Gawol, Business Development Team Leader at BettaF!sh. “It’s not only super sustainable, but it’s also regenerative for the ocean. If you cultivate seaweed it increases biodiversity and helps marine life to flourish.”

    Seaweed is an easily grown, zero-input crop that doesn’t require land, fresh water, fertiliser, or pesticides. It absorbs carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus. For fishermen who are under pressure to stop exploiting the oceans, seaweed cultivation can provide an alternative income source.

    And for consumers, seaweed is a superfood, full of minerals, amino acids, and iodine. Seaweed comes in thousands of species, and a variety of flavours, with hints of lemon, pepper, even truffles. East Asian countries, notably Japan, have long used seaweed as a staple in their cuisine. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Asia contributed over 97% of the world’s seaweed production in 2019.

    But in Europe, seaweed is still a fringe food product. Lilith says, “Whenever you tell people about the benefits of seaweed, they agree it’s nutritious and sustainable. But the moment you ask them to eat plain seaweed, they say it’s not for me.”

    From slimy to sublime

    BettaF!sh’s co-founders, Jacob von Manteuffel, a resource management specialist, and Deniz Ficicioglu, a communicator/cookbook author, were thinking about the future of food on an overburdened planet, and wondered how they could make people fall in love with seaweed. Knowing that canned tuna is one of the world’s favourite seafood products, they set out to develop a substitute.

    BettaF!sh’s product development team conducted months of research, developing new processes and overcoming hurdles such as seaweed’s muddy colour and slimy feel. Once the team came up with the flavour, another challenge was to maintain it in a can, since plant proteins behave differently under high pressure and at high temperatures—both requirements for shelf-life stability.

    The result is made from organic seaweed sourced in northern Europe, mixed with fava beans as a protein base. It contains no soy, yeast products, preservatives, or added sugar. Lilith joined BettaF!sh after tasting TU-NAH and being dazzled by its taste and texture. “There’s not a lot of knowledge about how to use seaweed in the food industry,” she explains, “but the product development team succeeded in finding ways to integrate seaweed in food applications that both look tasty and taste delicious!”               

    TU-NAH is both flaky and more tender than regular tuna, with a pleasing umami taste of the ocean. It comes canned or as a spread, the latter sometimes flavoured. TU-NAH is sold direct to consumers from the company’s online shop or in retail stores such as Müller. BettaF!sh also supplies it to restaurants (the L’Osteria chain offers it on pizza and pasta) or in ready-to-eat vegan sandwiches sold at supermarkets and in vending machines. The company is focusing on the European market for now, before throwing its net wider.


    It feels and tastes like tuna

    Consumers have given the company an impressive score of 4.6 on Trustpilot. “Mind blown away by the taste and texture of the vegan Tuna. It’s like the real deal.” “I used to love eating tuna sandwiches…TU-NAH gives me back the wonderful experience of those sandwiches - in a sustainable way.” “Even my (non-vegan) fiancé loved it!” 

    Lilith says there is no better compliment than the fact that Japan Airlines is serving a TU-NAH wrap to business and first-class passengers on flights between London and Tokyo. “This is a huge thing for us because Japanese people know a lot about seaweed, and they know a lot about tuna. It’s a dream partner.”

    BettaF!sh claims that in a year and a half, its products have spared 134 tonnes of tuna, avoided 136 tonnes of bycatch, and used 12 tonnes of seaweed.

    BettaF!sh has only just begun to show what it can do with seaweed. “There is life after TU-NAH,” says Lilith. “There are other fish species that are loved around Europe.” We might just be seeing seaweed salmon before long.