- Widespread predictions that kelp would soon become the new kale have not yet panned out, National Public Radio reports. Although ocean-based production has increased, and kelp is now in a variety of food products, the industry needs better infrastructure and more consumer acceptance to fulfill those predictions.
- A growing number of people are farming kelp, but commercial processing facilities are lacking and what form the market wants — frozen, dried or other — isn't entirely clear, NPR said.
- If the kelp industry does gain sufficient traction, there may not be adequate storage and transportation to get products to their destination.
While kelp has not yet lived up to the glowing predictions of widespread popularity, it is being used more frequently in food products. It is appearing in chips, snacks, broth, noodles and jerky, as well as in restaurant side dishes such as stews, soups and salads.
A big asset is its nutritional profile. Kelp has an abundance of natural vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and plant-based protein, and it is often considered a superfood because of these qualities. It is also one of the best natural sources of iodine, which is required for thyroid hormone production.
Kelp also boasts a sustainability factor because of its environmental benefits. Farming kelp doesn't require land or fresh water, and there are no fertilizers or pesticides used to produce it. Kelp beds absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide, which helps remove acid from the water, so it is sometimes grown along with high-value shellfish such as oysters and scallops.
But because kelp is usually grown in the ocean — and sometimes tubs or tanks — consumers often think products made from it will taste fishy or have an objectionable aftertaste. However, fans say it has more of an "ocean flavor," and that the taste can vary from sweet to savory to nutty depending on the type.
Global production has increased in recent years, particularly in China, and it is expected to grow even more. According to a 2016 World Bank report, annual global seaweed production could hit 500 million dry tons by 2050 if harvests increase 14% each year. The report said that amount would add 10% to the world's food supply and potentially create 50 million direct jobs in the process.
Kale continues to be popular, but its prominence has been challenged by Brussels sprouts and collard greens. Its reputation has also been tarnished after making this year's "Dirty Dozen" list with 18 different pesticides detected on multiple samples, according to the Environmental Working Group.
So, even while kelp seems to have a long way to go before it can compete with kale, it is attracting more attention as consumers become familiar with its uses and how commercially producing it can help the environment. But until the processing, marketing and logistics issues are solved, realizing its full potential could take a lot more time.