Key ingredient? Seaweed

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on November 14, 2019.

Seaweed is showing up in a wide range of new products (clockwise from top left:) The Gunpowder & Rose rum, Loliware straws, Bullwhip hot sauce, Sheringham gin, Atlantic Sea Farms Sea-Beet Kraut, Akua kelp jerky and Monterey Bay sea grapes.

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It is rare to get good news from the sea. Water temperatures are rising, fish stocks are being depleted and the fish we eat are increasingly full of microplastics. But the oceans do hold one positive portent: seaweed. It is regenerative, growing about a foot (30.48cm) a day, and carbon- and nitrogen-sequestering. Research suggests that, per acre, it can absorb more than 20 times as much carbon dioxide as a forest. In the US and Canada, entrepreneurs are cultivating it and other macro algae for everything from kelp jerky to capsules containing shots of Glenlivet.

These companies have ambitious plans to grow in 2020, taking up more and more space on shelves and cleaning up more and more oceans. “We are eyeing the blue-green economy,” said Chelsea Briganti, the chief executive officer (CEO) of packaging company Loliware. “Seaweed represents an opportunity everywhere you look.” — Bloomberg



Loliware first got attention on Shark Tank for making edible cups; it has since moved on to straws. The seaweed-based, pastel-coloured products are compostable and marine-safe, and companies as diverse as Marriott, liquor company Pernod Ricard and the Museum of Modern Art have picked them up. The Beacon, New York-based company is in the process of developing seaweed products in anticipation of the European Union ban on plastic cutlery in the first quarter of 2020. It is also crafting paper pulp from seaweed, “the first aquatic paper that doesn’t use terrestrial-based resources or trees”, according to Briganti, and seaweed products to replace the polybags prevalent in fashion merchandising.


Hot sauce

“We see our products as gateway foods to introduce American consumers to kelp,” said Lia Heifetz, who started Barnacle Foods in Juneau, Alaska with her partner Matt Kern. Their products feature bull kelp, native to the Pacific Coast, in familiar guises such as salsa. New to the line is Bullwhip hot sauce, which delivers a slow burn and a big hit of garlic, along with peri-peri peppers and, of course, kelp.



Sporting a bottle that looks as if it washed up on the shore, Seaside Gin from Sheringham Distillery in Sooke, British Columbia, Canada was named the best contemporary gin at the 2019 World Gin Awards, beating out 236 contenders. Its signature ingredient, wing kelp, is harvested from the Pacific, about a mile from the distillery. Co-founder Jason MacIsaac, a retired chef, likens the effect of seaweed in the spirit to finishing a dish with salt. Sheringham also produces an aquavit that highlights briny kelp. In 2020, the distillery will bring out a barrel-aged aquavit.


Food packaging

Two of seaweed’s biggest moments of 2019 came courtesy of Notpla, a London-based packaging company that crafts products from French seaweed. First was sports drink-filled Oohos, which replaced plastic bottles and cups at the Virgin Money London Marathon. Then came the Glenlivet “Capsule Collection” made from Notpla’s edible pods filled with whisky.

For 2020, founders Pierre Paslier and Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez are focused on products less known in the war on plastic: ketchup and mayonnaise packets and cardboard takeaway containers which look innocuous but are often coated with eco-unfriendly products such as Teflon. “The little condiment packs are a combination of plastic and aluminium but recycling is not usually an option because they are so small and it is easy for them to end up as litter in the environment,” said Paslier. Notpla’s condiment capsules are already being used in trial runs in 20 London restaurants using the Just Eat delivery service.



“If you think about recycling clothes, it’s a very surface-level approach that doesn’t get to the core of the problem of fashion, which is a toxic industry,” said Aleksandra Gosiewski, a co-founder and chief operating officer of AlgiKnit, a burgeoning biomaterial business-to-business company in Brooklyn, New York. It produces kelp-derived yarn and is working with brands to create a supply chain of products such as footwear and accessories, as well as clothes, all of which are made to degrade instead of taking up landfill space for years. “We are creating materials that can be used in everyday products like a T-shirt ... material durable enough that won’t wash away when you wear it in the rain but that will biodegrade quickly when you no longer need it,” she said.



Using kelp sourced from New England ocean farms, New York’s Akua has introduced high-protein, high-fibre vegan jerky that co-founder and CEO Courtney Boyd Myers calls the world’s first “carbon-negative snack”. Over the course of the year, Akua jerky has pulled 2,000 pounds (907.18kg) of carbon from the ocean via its ocean-farmed kelp. By March, it will have nine flavours of kelp jerky on the market, including rosemary maple, chile lime and mango habanero.


Sea grapes

Founder Michael Graham’s day job is being a seaweed professor at the Moss Landing Marine Labs of San Jose State University. His side gig is Monterey Bay Seaweeds, which supplies Michelin-starred restaurants from Eleven Madison Park in New York to Aubergine in Carmel, California with freshly harvested products. His faintly sweet and salty sea grapes — caviar-like seaweed bubbles — go for US$60 (RM249) a pound. In 2020, he will introduce sea truffles, a red seaweed with hints of earthy, peppery mushrooms.



The Newfoundland Distillery Co’s Gunpowder & Rose Rum features seaweed in an unconventional way. Traditionally, sailors were given a ration of rum that was proofed — sprinkled with gunpowder and lit to prove that it had enough alcohol. Co-founder Peter Wilkins tried to recreate it. “Health Canada wasn’t convinced,” he said. As an alternative, he sourced local ingredients that would mimic the charred taste of gunpowder — kelp for the sulphur and Newfoundland sea salt too. More straightforward is Newfoundland’s seaweed gin, flavoured with a locally harvested dulce, that earned double gold at the San Francisco World Spirit Competition in 2018. Next for Newfoundland are seaweed-infused bitters.



Josh Rogers quit Google to start Portland, Maine-based Cup of Sea, where he makes blends of savoury tea that highlight seaweed. Sea Smoke is a mix of a dulce and lapsang souchong, whereas Bold Coast Breakfast is a black tea with seaweed nutrients hiding inside. Rogers also pushes seaweed products at Heritage Seaweed, his year-old store in Portland, and is developing products that include chocolate and bath soaks. In 2020, he will expand his seaweed portfolio to include umami cocktail bitters and an infused olive oil.



Former diplomat Briana Warner heads up Atlantic Sea Farms in Saco, Maine, the largest kelp aquaculture business in the US. She calls out her business as a local economy booster: The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the world’s oceans at a time when the state’s coastal economy depends on the lobster industry. Her products include Sea-Chi, a spicy marine version of kimchi, and Sea-Beet Kraut, a reddish-purple, fermented raw kelp condiment made with beets and carrots. Atlantic Sea Farms plans to expand its harvest and production from 250,000 pounds this year to 600,000 pounds in 2020.