In a world in need for more sustainable food and feed, our oceans have a lot to offer. We have talked to Pronofa, one of our startups, who has found their source in the Ciona tunicate. As fascinating as it looks, it also shows big potential as a protein source for people, animal, and fish.

Tunicate hamburger with low carbon footprint

Pronofa is a trailblazer for new and sustainable protein sources. Their main raw material is a type of tunicate – or sea squirt – which grow naturally along the Norwegian and Swedish coastline.

– Tunicate has incredible qualities as food because it contains animal protein with a nutritional content which is similar to traditional kinds of meat, Magnus Petersen, Project Manager for tunicates, says.
Magnus Petersen, Project Manager for tunicates. Photo: Pronofa ASA

Also, it does not taste like fish or seafood, he explains.

– This means that it can more easily mimic the taste and mouthfeel that many meat eaters prefer. Meaning we can make tunicate hamburgers, tunicate meatballs, or even use the minced tunicate meat in tacos, lasagne, pizza or other popular dishes and get a result that is either the same or close to the same as what consumers are used to.

Perhaps the best part, according to Pronofa, is that their tunicate meat has arguably the lowest carbon footprint of any kind of meat in the world.

– One version of the tunicate hamburger we got analysed ended up with just 0,25 kg CO2 EQ and the final products we will sell on the market will also be around that number. This is several times lower than beef, but also other types of meat, Petersen says.

In a world where more and more people are looking to eat more sustainably, tunicate meat can represent an alternative that perhaps is easier to swallow for the more “carnivorous” members of society. 

– The potential for tunicates is quite extraordinary. Based on the feedback we’ve gotten so far; we are confident that this new product will be well-received in the marked. Our first ready-made tunicate products will be on sale in Norway and Sweden later this year, Petersen says enthusiastically.

Why tunicates?

By just looking at the strange creature, it doesn’t look like it’s filled with much, except water. So how did Pronofa end up using it?

Marine biologist Magnus Petersen, who had written his master’s thesis on tunicates, was appointed to spearhead Pronofa’s tunicate project. According to Pronofa, tunicates – and particularly the Ciona species growing in Norway and Sweden, seemed at first glance to be very interesting.

– The benefits of using Ciona tunicates are plenty, Petersen says.

First, he highlights the possibilities as food for human consumption. According to him, Pronofa can make minced meat which is applicable in the same way as other kinds of meat. The taste of the meat itself is relatively neutral (= no fish taste), yet it enhances other tastes, such as spices or sauces. In addition, Petersen explains that making their end-products does not require so-called “micro processing”.

– It’s a naturally cultivated product. The fond extracted from the tunicate meat offers an exquisite Umami flavour, and it can replace fish sauce, bullion, or broth in several dishes, Petersen says.

– Another major advantage with tunicates is that they are grown at sea, so we don’t use any land areas, freshwater or other inputs.

Tunicates also capture nitrogen, he says, which means that they help to reduce eutrophication. This results in a cleaner water and better oxygen levels in the sea. In addition, tunicates don’t need fertilizers, irrigation, or anything like that.

– They can grow vertically at sea, so we can potentially get around 180 kg tunicates per square meter per harvest. To paint a picture of the potential to scale up production, that’s 160 times more than oats grown in a field.

Feed production from tunicates and insects  

In addition to being fit for the human food plate, tunicates can be used for animal and fish feed.

– From a sustainability perspective, it’s probably better to produce food first. However, we are conducting parallel feed trials – and this looks very promising too, Petersen explains.
Black soldier fly. Photo: Pronofa ASA

Pronofa is also working with insects, and they are exploring the possibility of producing black soldier fly as a feed ingredient.

According to Petersen, they have ongoing R&D projects and plans ready to scale up production when the time is right.

– Our challenge is finding a cheap substrate for the insects that cannot be used as feed for other types of animals. Consequently, we are advocating a change in EU laws that would permit the use of, for instance, fish sludge or discarded food as a substrate.

– It makes sense from a biological perspective, but insects are currently not allowed to be fed anything you couldn’t give a horse, Petersen adds.

He explains that if this is changed, Pronofa and others could potentially create a circular economic system where a lot of waste could be recycled and used for feed.

Good feedback

We are 8 billion people in the world now, and will reach 9,7 billion by 2050, according to the U.N. Consequently, it’s becoming increasingly urgent that we find new food and feed sources to complement the old.

Tunicate hamburger may be one of the answers.

– The feedback has been overwhelmingly good – both from kids at events and politicians, have tasted it. And perhaps more importantly, ordinary people who are just curious to try a new kind of food seem to like it a lot too. Some people who try it for the first time are a bit skeptical at first yet are quick to say that “this actually tasted really good!” when they try it, Petersen says.

Among the lucky ones to try the Ciona are Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and Minister of Fisheries and Ocean Policy Bjørnar Skjæran who have eaten tunicate meatballs. Let’s hope we are next in line!

About Pronofa and their origin

Pronofa is a “spin-off” company from the industrial company Denofa, which has produced fats, oils, and foodstuffs for 111 years. Denofa’s main business is to import deforestation-free and sustainably certified soy from Brazil.

With the acknowledgement that there isn’t a lot more arable land left to grow crops on anywhere in the world, Denofa started to look for new and sustainable sources that could complement the soy in the coming years. This is where Pronofa comes in.

After the Pronofa management got to taste an early version of the tunicate hamburger from a company called Marine Taste in Sweden, they negotiated a deal to acquire Marine Taste in 2022. Since then, Pronofa and Marine Taste have been working intensely to finalize recipes, apply for more cultivation areas, develop a new Brand (to be announced), plan a market launch in 2023 etc.