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Seaweed wave: Health, sustainability spur algae’s popularity

Seaweed has been gaining popularity on menus and store shelves over the past few years, but this year could bring a tidal wave of new products and culinary applications as food companies look to cash in on algae’s health and sustainability benefits.

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Consumer InsightsFood

Seaweed and other forms of algae are gaining popularity as a food ingredient. (Photo of seaweed floating below the surface of the ocean)

Shane Stagner/Unsplash

Kelp and other types of sea greens floated to the top of many 2023 food and beverage trend lists, from Whole Foods to Pinterest. Seaweed has been gaining popularity on menus and store shelves over the past few years, but this year could bring a tidal wave of new products and culinary applications as food companies look to cash in on algae’s health and sustainability benefits.

More than a quarter (28%) of consumers surveyed by the International Food Information Council in December 2021 said they would be interested in trying “sea green-based products (e.g., algae- or kelp-based foods).” The algae category – which comprises microscopic algae known as phytoplankton as well as larger seaweed varieties including kelp – has been steadily growing to offer consumers more foods and beverages that make use of algae’s flavor and nutritional benefits. The commercial seaweed market is projected to grow from $40 billion in 2020 to $95 billion by 2027, according to Global Market Insights.

“We have noticed more food brands using seaweed and kelp in products ranging from seasonings to pasta sauces to entrees,” said Denise Purcell, vice president of resource development for the Specialty Foods Association. 

“Seaweed and kelp are at the intersection of several trends: better-for-you options with added nutrients, sustainability and upcycled ingredients. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of what they are putting into their bodies and they seek to make good choices for their own health and for the health of the environment,” Purcell said.

Algae offers a sea of culinary possibilities

Algae is showing up on store shelves in all sorts of products, from dried seaweeds to sprinkle on salads to packaged snacks and even dog treats, according to Kantha Shelke, founder of food science research company Corvus Blue.

“Product developers love that kelp and seaweed are sustainable, gluten-free, fat-free, fiber-rich, nutrient-dense sources of magnesium, calcium, potassium and iodine,” said Shelke, who works with the Specialty Foods Association as a trendspotter.

In addition to its nutritional benefits, many food companies are leaning on algae’s distinct flavor profile when developing products. Its savory, umami quality lends itself to plant-based snacks that aim to emulate meaty flavors. Seattle-based Blue Dot Kitchen’s Seacharrones are a riff on chicharrones made with seaweed, sorghum, spirulina and spices, and San Francisco-based Umaro Foods is using seaweed to make a plant-based bacon. 

Algae is also an obvious choice when looking to imbue foods with the flavor of the sea. “Phytoplankton has a distinct and unique seafood flavor, but with the advantage that it is vegan,” said David Hunter, founder and CEO of Canada-based phytoplankton company Blugenics Innovations. The company markets its Plankton Marino product to high-end restaurants, and Hunter said they are also working on “products to elevate the nutritional value [of] commodity-based products.”

As the plant-based seafood category continues to grow, more food companies are likely to turnt to algae as a source of flavor that also brings other benefits.

“The bulk of retail products so far have used legumes and vegetables as the base ingredient to mimic seafood/fish. However, new companies have started to consider more novel ingredients – like algae – that could help get the flavor and nutrition right, while also being more sustainable,” food and beverage analytics company Spoonshot wrote in its 2023 food trends report.

Sustainability factor drives growth for seaweed

Algae’s reputation as a sustainable food is a key driver of its growing popularity. Unlike other crops, algae doesn’t require land, fertilizer or fresh water to grow – just ocean water and light.

“Under the right conditions it can grow very fast,” Blugenics’ Hunter said. “Phytoplankton is the number one oxygen producer and absorber of CO2, so the growing process is beneficial to the [planet] itself.”

The mounting attention on the merits of algae is driving investment in seaweed farming, which is the fastest growing segment of the aquaculture industry, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

With demand rising, farmers are working to scale up production. A cooperative of New England seaweed farmers called the Sugar Kelp Cooperative formed last year to support the industry, Modern Farmer reported. These types of farming cooperatives assist with marketing and help producers scale up output and get necessary tests to qualify seaweed for food consumption – important tasks for an industry supplying one of the year’s most buzzed-about ingredients.

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