Media gets it wrong on “vegan uni”

Published on
October 2, 2019

Ai Murakami, team leader of the corporate communications group for Osaka-based Fuji Oil Holdings Inc. said in an interview with SeafoodSource that the company’s new imitation sea urchin roe product is not vegan, as was widely misreported in the media.

Murakami confirmed the imitation uni actually contains 5 percent real uni. The confusion is likely due to the product being introduced in March at an event where many entirely plant-based products were also featured.

The concept for the product is also different than reported. It is not meant as a “neta” or sushi topping, though it may work in a California roll for kids, with avocado and cucumber. It is mainly intended to be mixed into spaghetti or baked in bread or risotto. 

“Customers want some real uni, in Japan,” Murakami said. Instead of appealing to vegetarians, the sales point is predictable supply, operational efficiency, and cost. Wild harvested uni supply and prices vary widely according to season and weather. Besides the small amount of real sea urchin roe, the product mainly consists of soy milk cream and vegetable oil. The product is packed in one-kilogram pillow packs. The corner of the pouch can be clipped and the product squeezed out. It is intended for food processors or institutional customers and not for retail sale.

While the uni is not a vegan product, Fuji Oil does make an imitation tuna flake product that contains no real fish. And it has an advanced line-up of other soy-based products simulating cheese, beef, pork and chicken. Still, its promotion does not only focus on animal rights, as is common for American and European makers of plant-based foods, but also social responsibility, and in particular, the belief that a rising population will put ever more strain on the Earth’s limited resources. Eating lower on the food chain reduces the amount of land and water consumed, and the amount carbon-dioxide produced, according to the company’s campaign.

The company has developed a patented manufacturing method, called Ultra-Soy Separation, by which it makes soymilk cream and low-fat soymilk with qualities like those of milk cream or egg yolk, and like low-fat milk or egg white, respectively. The soy is separated using a method similar to that used to separate fresh milk. By fermenting soymilk cream, the company has imitated the taste and texture of cream cheese and mascarpone cheese.

To make “soy meat” analogs of more solid food like meat or tuna flakes, defatted soybeans, water, and other ingredients are extruded under finely-controlled heat and pressure to create the desired texture and shape. The process induces the creation of fibers with a texture similar to meat.

More widely, applications that in the past were used mainly for ground meat for hamburgers and “gyoza” (potstickers), are now being applied to vegan foods, in response to increased demand, Murakami said. Murakami said Fuji Oil has received a positive response to its soy meat’s advanced functional characteristics, including its ability to remain juicy without hardening even when chilled. Murakami noted that the product is most suitable for applications where it can take on the flavor of a sauce.

To showcase its lineup and demonstrate to the trade how the product can be used, Fuji Oil has opened a restaurant offering only dishes featuring its plant-based foods (no uni). ''UPGRADE Plant based kitchen'' was opened on 20 September in the Daimaru Shinsaibashi store Main Building B2 floor Food Hall (in Japan, it is common for the basement of department stores to be devoted to small shops offering specialty foods).

Prices at the restaurant are reasonable at JPY 1,000 (USD 9.25, EUR 8.48) for three deli dishes plus soup and bread or rice. A “4-deli-set” is JPY 1,300 (USD 12.02, EUR 11.02) plus tax. Examples of dishes at the new restaurant include fried soy meat and celery with cashew nuts; Chinese-style salad of kales, pink grapefruit and Mame-máge (soymilk cheese); and stewed deep-fried tofu and soy meat with sea veggies. 

Murakami said the company has no plans to expand to other locations in Japan, for now.

Photo courtesy of Fuji Oil Holdings Inc. 

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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