Fish that’s not fish, but is? I was first to try cultivated fish. Your burning questions answered
[UPDATED October 20, 2021 to include more about ingredients used in making cultivated meat]
Fish that’s not the fish, but is fish? I know confusing.
This is a piece of salmon meat that was grown or “cultivated” from salmon fish cells — so no fish were caught or slaughtered to make it. How is this possible? I’ll explain.
I was one of the first people in the world to try this salmon, which I’ll refer to here as “cultivated.” (But you’ll also see these cultivated meat products referred to by various people or groups as cell-cultured meat, cell-based meat, clean meat, cultured meat, synthetic meat, slaughter-free, lab-grown meat, etc. More about the naming conventions below. And why these products are NOT, or may not, technically be vegan. And are not plant-based.)
This cultivated fish — and the one I tried seen here — is from San Francisco-based startup Wildtype. It looks and tastes nearly exactly like salmon, because at the cellular level, the DNA of Wildtype salmon is the same as the DNA of a caught, or what I’ll refer to as “traditional” salmon. I know, you may still be confused, keep reading...
Cultivated meat, like this sushi-grade cultivated salmon from Wildtype, could help reduce our reliance on environmentally hazardous animal agriculture and aquaculture. (Um, have you seen Seaspiracy? If not, stop reading this and go watch it now.) Plus, there’s no mercury, antibiotics, microplastics or other gross contaminants commonly found in wild-caught and farmed fish, so you could argue it’s cleaner and healthier too. And yes, it does contain Omega-3’s and the other nutrients of fish with a similar fat and protein balance (but a little less protein than traditional salmon according to the company).
I posted a few photos on my Instagram from the tasting + interview I did with Wildtype, and got A TON of questions — the most I ever have had on a Story post, so thought I’d drop some of the questions I got — verbatim — along with my answers here:
So is it real fish? Or mock fish?
It’s not real fish in the traditional way we know fish. Typically, a fish has to be born, raised, caught, and slaughtered. This new food technology and the process of cultivating meat, enables the growth of, in this case, fish meat from just a few fish cells. So no fish harmed in the making. Companies are calling their not-fish “fish,” because the muscle tissue that they grow, or “cultivate” is nearly identical to traditional fish tissue.
So it’s cultivated ... as in farmed? Or cultivated in a lab?
Adding to the answer above since we established this is not the traditional fish you know, the word “cultivation” can be confusing. It simply means that meat tissue was grown, or “cultivated” using newly developed techniques that are a result of decades of disciplinary advancements in stem cell biology, tissue engineering, fermentation, and more.
So it’s made in a lab?
No, not really. Think of the process as looking more like a brewery, with fermentation tanks. Fish cells are put inside a cultivator tank, also called bioreactors (a fancy name for a device that supports an environment for growing organisms like yeast, bacteria, or animal cells) and are fed a nutrient mixture. The cells thrive when fed the same type of nutrients humans or fish need, like protein, sugars and natural minerals like zinc and iron. In the case of Wildtype’s salmon for example, after nurturing the cells with their nutrient mixture, they place them in plant-based structures where they’re guided to become the fish meat that looks familiar, and tastes familiar. (Yes, I am getting to the taste part. Read on…)
What was the texture?
At the tasting, there was a sushi chef there who prepared both a salmon roll, and a few pieces of sashimi. They intentionally didn’t use sauce so I could get the taste and texture without interference. The sashimi enabled me to really feel the texture. It was buttery, smooth, but also felt a little bit structured or gummy. Not so different than I remember traditional raw salmon feeling. But perhaps a tad bit gummier than I remember traditional salmon.
Was it good? (How did it taste? … and many other versions of this question were asked)
This was the most asked question; people wanted to know how it tasted. It was good. Psychologically because I don’t eat fish anymore it was strange, but I did harken back to when I ate fish, and it tasted the same as I remember. I don’t think you would know you’re eating a cultivated piece of salmon vs. a traditional salmon.
When was the last time you ate real fish to compare?
The last time I ate fish was 7+ years ago. While I've always been a heavy plant-based eater, I used to eat seafood periodically before going vegan. And ironically, the last animal product I ate before going full vegan was a piece of salmon. But I do remember the taste and felt I could adequately compare.
Is there just this "cell fish"? Or other cell-based meats?
Cultivated (cell-based) meat producers are making all sorts of animal-product doppelgangers. From beef, to fish, to chicken and more.
Is this type of product vegan?
There is an ongoing discussion about if cultivated meat is, or could be, vegan. The population of vegans in the world is relatively small, and cultured meat is not really targeted at us, but it’s an important question (for me at least) to ponder and answer.
First let me say, I am vegan, and I feel this product, and at least the Wildtype fish, is okay to consume based on my veganism practice — and trying it doesn’t make me un-vegan. I support new technologies that don’t harm animals, and that are working to end animal exploitation and environmental degradation caused by animal agriculture; and are working to create a better, cleaner, healthier, more food-secure and less animal-food dependent world.
Wildtype for example is using the same fish cells to produce its salmon today from cells swabbed from a fish three years ago. Also, take Eat Just, and its cultured chicken from its sister brand GOOD Meat. They have a cultivated chicken product being sold in Singapore currently, the only country that as of now has approved the sale of cultivated meat — and they are granting approval to companies, not the market as a whole. So Eat Just's GOOD Meat is the only brand that currently has the approval to sell. GOOD Meat tells a story of letting a chicken’s feather naturally fall from its body as it strutted around, then using the cells from that feather to go make their cultivated chicken product. So that's on the topic of obtaining the cells.
The thing in my opinion that might make it potentially the most un-vegan is the nutrient-rich mixture that is "fed" to cells while in the bioreactor, which may be animal-derived. Fetal bovine serum (FBS) is a popular growth stimulant that as the name implies, yes comes from unborn cows. It might be hard to know what's in these companies' growth mixtures since they hold them tight to the vest and often consider them trade secrets. (FDA regulation may force exposure of this when they come to market, but time will tell with that.) According to LA Times' reporting on the topic, many companies do use FBS. The aforementioned GOOD Meat, as revealed in the reporting, does use FBS according to the report. Also, some companies use gelatin in their scaffolding structures, which help shape the meat as it grows. (Gelatin is an animal-derived product that vegans avoid.) Both these animal-based products being used, if they do use them, are not talked about—but also no company is claiming its product are "vegan." Vegans or vegetarians considering eating cultivated meat products will want to know these details. Note that the Wildtype, the fish I tested, says it doesn't use FBS or gelatin.
Some industry groups say cultivated meat is “actual animal tissue, therefore, it is not vegan.” I personally don't agree and I am less concerned or fixated on the cellular composition, DNA, or structure, as some groups point to, rather, I am evaluating based on ethics, and animal-baesd ingredients used in the process. Again, while we likely won't see a vegan label on these products, I leave it to you to evaluate and do what feels true to your ethics and beliefs—and since each producer is doing something a little different in the way they grow their product, it might depend for you.
One thing to note is that cultivated meat is not, and will not, be targeted at vegans for the most part. I know I’ve taken a few informal polls, and many vegans aren’t interested in cultivated meat — even if it was technically “vegan” or aligns with their ethics. Many of us have just simply lost any interest in eating animal-like products. For example, I’ve never had red meat, or beef, so I don’t have an interest in eating the current plant-based burgers that taste like meat. And I probably won't eat a cell-based steak or burger. Cultivated meat though is a critical food technology helping reframe what “meat” can mean, and making it possible to produce meat without environmentally destructive and cruel animal agriculture.
Now some questions you didn’t ask ... so I’ll ask them and answer:
Are these cultivated meats plant-based?
When it comes to products and product labeling, “plant-based” has been adopted as a term that’s interchangeable with vegan. It’s a more consumer-friendly term, and when used in relation to a food product or dish, simply means the absence of animal product. However, cultivated meat producers don’t consider their products plant-based, because the base is nothing to do with plants, its actual meat tissue is based on its composition. So no, cultivated meat is not plant-based. You likely won’t see the products labeled as “vegan” or “plant-based” — they are in a new category. (And on the topic of labeling, the FDA and USDA recently launched an open comment period and is taking input from cultured-meat producers and industry stakeholders around naming conventions, which ties into labeling standards.)
When will these cultivated meat products be coming to a restaurant or store near me?
The sale of cultured meat in the US is not allowed yet. In 2019, the FDA and USDA formed a joint task force to lay out a framework for cultivated meat producers noting that together they would “ensure that regulatory oversight is in place so that, when that happens, food developers bring safe and properly labeled products to the market.”
We’ve still only just scratched the surface of cultivated meat. Hopefully, this helps give you a better understanding of this emerging industry. I will continue to cover this topic in various publications I write for, and bring you behind-the-scenes pieces like this here on my blog, Life's Alternate Route, which is dedicated to keeping your veg-friendly living informed and inspired. I post a lot on my Instagram too, so if you are not following me, do so there. Thanks for following along!
A short video recapping the tasting is also below: