Taken for granted on the beaches and coastlines around the UK, seaweed is now proving to be an increasingly popular foodstuff. Produce Business UK endeavours to find out more about the unlikely hero that’s tipped to become the next superfood
Seaweed has been turned into laverbread and eaten for centuries in south Wales, while, in Scotland, dulse – a well-known seaweed snack food – is the traditional food of Hebridean crofters.
Now seaweed is beginning to appear in many different formats; from food supplements and seasonings to gourmet cuisine. And, importantly, it is one of the fastest-growing produce markets.
Mintel’s 2016 European Consumer Trends report indicates that food and drink launches with seaweed flavours, such as kombu, nori/laver and wakame, have increased by 147% in Europe over the past five years, with over 29,000 seaweed-linked products being launched.
Stephanie Mattucci, global food science analyst at Mintel, explains: “Seaweed has been a famous delicacy in many Asian countries for centuries, celebrated for its flavour and nourishing powers.
“While still somewhat niche in Europe, we believe that seaweed could become the next superfood. Due to its abundance in natural vitamins, minerals and plant-based protein, seaweed speaks to the growing quest for naturally functional foods and alternative protein sources in the West.”
More and more companies are being set up to harvest seaweed and, as such, it has become a product that’s moving into the mainstream retail market. Major players include: Seagreens, Hebridean Seaweed, Mara Seaweed and The Cornish Seaweed Company.
Gourmet chefs are using it, and seaweed is already sold in Marks & Spencer and Tesco. It’s also appeared on BBC One TV cookery programme Saturday Kitchen in the form of Mara’s Smoked Applewood Dulse, while Artisan Breads includes seaweed in its baked goods.
Seaweed is widely used as a nutritional and functional supplement too, since it’s a salt replacement and flavour enhancer. The product is also unique because it contains umami – the fifth taste – so it can be salty or sweet, and it’s the one of the most highly mineralised vegetables on earth.
There is now a code of conduct for seaweed harvesting
Creating an industry
Tim Van Berkel, co-owner of The Cornish Seaweed Co., says he and his partner Caro decided setting up a seaweed business was a good idea after listening to a farming programme on BBC Radio 4 talking about the benefits of seaweed.
“It took us six months to find out who owns seaweed and we got the first licence in the UK from The Crown Estate to harvest it,” he admits. “Then we went to an Irish company to learn how to harvest, dry and process it.”
Van Berkel says at first there was no market for seaweed at all. “We had to create one,” he points out. “Local delicatessens sold seaweed from Japan, we offered local sourcing and encouraged celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver to use it. We even had to write recipes and explain how to use seaweed. Premium sausage manufacturer Lloyd Maunder uses it in his sausages, and we have just been listed in Waitrose and Tesco.”
The Cornish Seaweed Co. faced other challenges too. The firm had to work with food authorities to ensure food safety, and with Natural England to guarantee harvesting was sustainable and did not damage the environment. As a result, the firm helped to create a code of conduct for sustainable seaweed harvesting, which is now applicable nationwide.
Nonetheless, there are limitations to harvesting seaweed in the wild, as Van Berkel indicates: “You are dependent on the tides, and if there are rough storms you cannot go out. Environmental conditions can affect the product as you have to harvest it from clean water. There is a short harvesting period and we need enough to see us through the winter.”
Seaweed also has to be harvested by hand but this can add value to the product. Ian McKellar – who set up his artisan business Just Seaweed in 2007 to harvest natural wild edible sea kelp – believes hand harvesting is a key selling point because it ensures only the highest-quality seaweed is picked, at the right time and in the right season.
By cutting sustainably from just one location, McKellar says he’s able to test for heavy metals and pesticides, and set up a safe harvesting plan to monitor each species and prevent over harvesting.
Seaweed must be harvested from clean water
Seaweed farms next?
Already, attention is beginning to focus on the possibilities of setting up seaweed farms, with trials underway in Norway, Scotland and Ireland. “We recognised two challenges to seaweed growing as a food ingredient,” explains Dr Craig Rose (pictured below) of Seaweed & Co. “Firstly there is the need to find good quality, scalable, constant and sustainable produce; and, secondly, how to instil manufacturer confidence because it is so new and different.”
Dr Rose says Seaweed & Co is focusing on both these areas. “We have invested in Hebridean Seaweed, which produces seaweed for agriculture and animal feed, and we are involved in aquaculture research to grow seaweed,” he reveals. “Our aim is to create a method by which seaweed can be grown in tanks anywhere and could link into other farming sectors, such as salmon farming.”
Seaweed & Co has also endeavoured to work with Geneius Laboratories to develop a DNA-based seaweed certification test. “Manufacturers want to know every detail because it is so new,” Dr Rose explains. “The test gives us complete traceability even down to the person who cut the seaweed and the specific type of seaweed it is. This will help differentiate our material from lower-quality material coming onto the market.”
Dr Craig Rose of Seaweed & Co
Huge scope for growth
As more and more people get to know seaweed and its benefits, the future looks very bright, according to Fiona Houston of Mara Seaweed. “Since Mara started in 2011, we have seen a massive increase in awareness of the taste and health benefits,” she comments. “If this rate of growth continues, it won’t be long before everyone is eating it regularly.”
Van Berkel, meanwhile, believes seaweed presents an unlimited food source. “It has more uses than anyone has begun to realise,” he points out.
Dr Rose agrees, explaining that seaweed ticks all the “mega boxes” for food and health. He claims there is even research underway into the possibilities of utilising seaweed for anti-cancer and antiviral drugs, obesity, biomedical science and even energy.
“Research is underway to produce crops which could be the fuel of the future,” he notes. “For example, the Scottish Association for Marine Science is growing big kelp seaweed in long lines to be used for fuel.”
What’s more, Dr Rose says the seaweed market will only expand as it becomes a mainstream product that’s recognised by consumers. “As a food, seaweed is in a similar position to that which hummus enjoyed 15-16 years ago,” he says. “Very few people then knew what it was – now it is one of Tesco’s biggest-selling products. Likewise, yoghurt was relatively unknown in the 1970s, and now it is a mainstream food.
“I believe seaweed is an ingredient with huge scope for growth, as it’s a local, natural and sustainable product.”