The rise of seaweed

Seaweed is the new kale.

The buzz around seaweed products is growing louder by the day, as they make their way into mainstream grocery and club stores, and are featured on restaurant menus across the United States.The deeply nutritious greens, which are mineral-rich, contain essential amino acids, and are good sources of high-quality protein, are considered by many to be the new “superfood.” More consumers around the globe are recognizing the health benefits of the low-calorie foods, which include lowering blood pressure.

Plus, a number of demographic groups, most particularly millennials, are becoming more adventurous in their tastes and appreciate that seaweeds add umami, a savory flavor, to foods.

The sustainability and environmental benefits of seaweed are also an important factor in the rise of the popularity of so-called “sea vegetables,” according to Michael Graham. Graham is the president of Monterey Bay Seaweeds in Moss Landing, California, which is one of the largest land-based seaweed aquaculture producers in the United States.

“They are healthy and clean the environment in the process of growing,” Graham said.

As a result of the growing demand in the food, pharmaceutical, and agricultural sectors, the global commercial seaweed market is expected to grow to USD 22.1 billion (EUR 18.1 billion) by 2024, according to Grand View Research.

The number of fresh and dried seaweed products in the marketplace is growing rapidly, and includes a rising number of products grown and processed in the United States, though the market is dominated by large commercial seaweed suppliers based in Asia.

However, smaller manufacturers are luring more consumers to seaweeds as well. One example is Brittany, France-based Globe Export/ Algues de Bretagne, which won the grand prize for Best Retail Product at the Seafood Excellence Global Awards at Seafood Expo Global in Brussels, Belgium, last year.

The value-added seaweed company’s two types of “Marinated Seaweed” – dulse with red onion and white wine, and green laver with Brittany shallots and cider vinegar – were a hit with the Seafood Excellence Global judges, all of whom were veterans of the retail and foodservice sector.

A chef herself, Globe Export/Algues de Bretagne CEO Christine Le Tennier said she developed the product to make it easier to cook with seaweed.

“In kitchens today, home and professionalchefs both have less time, and the easier the product is to use, the better – especially so with seaweed, which many people are uncomfortable or unfamiliar using,” she said.

A survey of the industry shows that more commercial fishermen and aquaculture producers are making a living producing seaweed for restaurants, farmers' markets, and for use as an ingredient in commercial food products.

Sarah Redmond, co-founder of Springtide Seaweed in Sullivan, Maine, and former marine extension associate with Maine Sea Grant, said her company has seen increased demand for North Atlantic seaweed products.

Last year, Springtide Seaweed formed the Maine Seaweed Exchange in October to assist producers in developing seaweed products and differentiating their products with certifications such as USDA Organic and Maine Seaweed Exchange (MSE). The exchange members, which include Springtide, the largest U.S. seaweed farmer, represent more than 250,000 pounds of seaweed supply.

MSE Executive Director Andrea “Trey” Angera, Jr., co-founder of Springtide Seaweed, said MSE aims to help producers sell seaweed as a viable ingredient in commercial food products.

“We are transitioning what has been a hobby-type industry into a very established, accountable, and integrated part of the seafood industry,” Angera said. “We are trying to create high dollar values. We get farmers into farming, and then show them how to market their products.”

Springtide is already supplying its seaweed as an ingredient to food manufacturers, such as Brodo Broth Co., which supplies bone broth and vegan bone broth containing seaweed to Whole Foods Market stores, and direct to consumers through its website, and daRosario, which produces organic truffle vegannaise and other products containing seaweed.

Monterey Bay Seaweeds has also seen its customer base grow. It now supplies raw seaweed to numerous white-tablecloth, Michelin-star restaurants in California, such as Passionfish in Pacific Grove, as well as other eateries in other U.S. states.

As the largest land-based seaweed aquaculture producer in the United States, Monterey Bay Seaweeds has dug out a niche “providing a very high-quality seaweed for chefs who want raw,” said Graham, president of the three-year-old company. “We don’t process it and we don’t blanche it. We ship it to them live, which allows them to do anything they want to it.”

While Graham acknowledges that his family-owned business is small compared to the mammoth seaweed aquaculture facilities in Asia, his business is close to being profitable and he sells all the seaweed he can produce at his 5,000-gallon tank facility.

Although the seaweed craze has taken off in the past few years, there is every indication that the demand for sea vegetables will continue into the future and not become a passing fad, according to a recent market report produced by the research firm Technavio.

The report concluded: “The rising popularity of Southeast Asian cuisines globally, where seaweeds are extensively used, is expected to drive the global seaweed market.”


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