Seaweed is experiencing a surge in popularity as it becomes more common on lists of product ingredients, according to Food Ingredients First.
Craig Rose, managing director of Seaweed & Co., which makes the PureSea brand of seaweed-based products, told the publication the ingredient offers plant-based, clean label and sustainability benefits and is the only natural and vegan source of iodine.
Seaweed’s nutritional benefits include supporting cognitive health, the nervous system and healthy skin, boosting energy and metabolism, and helping children's development. Rose told the website it's a great ingredient for children’s snacks, beverages and spreads. And as consumers become more attuned to seaweed's benefits, Rose said consumers think any product that includes it is healthier — a phenomenon he called “the kale effect” after the massive popularity of the green superfood.
Seaweed is being used in foods to enhance umami and other flavors and to replace salt — both in-demand qualities for ingredients today. Forms of seaweed are also showing up in snacks, jerky, pasta, vegetarian caviar and even edible food wrappers.
As its assets become better known, seaweed may be overcoming the ick factor with consumers and is being seen as a healthful, plant-based ingredient.
Besides its iodine content, seaweed contains the amino acid tyrosine, which helps the thyroid gland function. Also, studies have shown, compounds extracted from one type of seaweed reduce the growth of certain cancer tumors and make the chemotherapy drug tamoxifen more effective.
Seaweed's heightened profile is reflected in the marketplace, where plant-based products are booming. According to Innova Market Insights data quoted by Food Ingredients First, from 2014 to 2018, there was an average annual 68% jump in food and beverage launches with plant-based claims.
According to a report from Grand View Research, the global seaweed market was valued at $11.1 billion in 2016 and is expected to grow at a rate of 8.9% from 2018 to 2024. Although U.S. consumption is way behind that of Asia and Japan, it’s increasing by about 7% each year due to restaurant exposure, according to James Griffin of Johnson & Wales University.
Part of this trend stems from the health halo seaweed has gradually assumed. A Dutch study published last year found having the ingredient in products boosted the likelihood of purchase, even if the amount an item contained was only 5%. However, consumers in that study were also leery about how 100% seaweed might smell and taste — which is why Seaweed & Co. has developed a tasteless microencapsulated powder Rose noted is coated with plant protein and fiber.
Another element in seaweed’s favor could be sustainability. PureSea sources the wild ingredient from the outer Hebrides off northwest Scotland, while the Mara Seaweed brand harvests seaweed for its salt-replacement products from that country’s eastern coastline. Mara said it’s working with producers in the North Atlantic to guarantee a regular supply — and also so consumers will know where it comes from and who produces it.
As seaweed-based ingredients and products become more common in the marketplace, larger companies may step up and include it more often in products for a distinctive unami taste. Seaweed & Co. is banking on that by developing a smoked variety, which Rose said is being included in mayonnaise, infused oils and any products used with fish.
With tasteless powder, a smoked option, ground salt replacement and other products becoming available, seaweed may find wider acceptance in an array of foods — and potentially demonstrate to consumers the nutritional and flavor benefits its supporters have always said it can provide.