With the arguably disappointing Superbowl 2019 now fading into memory, some of us – silently regretting the over-indulgence in typical game night party foods – are turning once again back to our resolutions to eat healthier this year. Out are the wings, chips, spicy layered dips, pizza slices, and onion rings and in are fresh salads, juices, and vegetables mercifully devoid of mouth-searingly spicy buffalo sauce. Not that we don’t like our buffalo sauce – after all, we at Berkshire Corporation are a diverse crew and always up for a culinary adventure. Finding their way to the rolling hills of Western Massachusetts, the team has experts from all across the world who share their passion for cleanroom technologies, contamination controlled environments, the manufacture of superlative consumables, and the pursuit of knowledge through topnotch science. And whichever team we’re rooting for (‘Go Pats!) as a group we are very cohesive, finding commonality in our mission, our vision, and our dedication to excellence whether in production or in customer service. In fact, even in the face of sports’ disappointments, we often notice how little there is to divide us. Except, that is, for one question. One very divisive matter. One debate – if that’s even the right word for this squabble – upon which it is impossible to maintain neutrality. Yes, as we discovered this week, there is one critical question that separates us more decisively than the wearing of a MAGA hat and that question is…
…the palatability of laver.
Laver? Yes. Unbeknownst to us, one of our team grew up in the English West Country, a bucolic agricultural area surrounded on two sides by glorious coastal waters. Waters teeming with cod and haddock, mussels and laver. And it is this culinary peculiarity that has separated our office right down the middle. But what is it and what relevance does it have here? Grab a snorkel and a set of fins – we’re going diving…
Laver is a type of seaweed that’s most commonly found in southern English and Welsh coastal waters and is farmed in estuaries in Japan.
Described by the Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company as ‘one of the food wonders of the world,’ (well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?) laver is a seaweed with a rich iodine content and a distinct ‘marine olive flavor.’(1) Delicate in appearance, this particular sea vegetable has thin fronds that are either purplish-red or green in color and turn black when dry. In order to be edible (although some argue that its edibility remains in contention) the seaweed must be boiled for around 10 hours or, as our friends at the aforementioned food purveyors note, ‘in Japan they developed a delicate way of stripping laver seaweed down to make intricate sushi sheets
(wheras) we, in Wales, simply battered [it] into submission by boiling it to death.’(2)
In nutritional terms, however, boiling the plant to death does not seem to impact the alleged health benefits, which might be why the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently awarded an artisanal harvesting operation a $600,000 Small Business Research Innovation grant to develop a seaweed-based bread as an alternative to the traditional wheat-based loaf. Operating on the shores of coastal Maine, the jauntily-named VitaminSea had already received an initial $100,000 as a start-up grant to develop a prototype SeaKelp+, a bread rich in carrageenan and agar – hydrocolloids associated with the promotion of healing – as well as vitamins and protective antioxidants, fiber, protein, and polysaccharides to support gut health. In addition to supplying important minerals like iodine, iron, calcium, and copper, seaweed is also low in calories and fat, and contains alginate which suppresses the digestion of fat and could assist in weight loss. VitaminSea already harvests and processes both farmed and wild sea vegetables for use in energy bars, animal supplements, seasoning mixes, and even chocolate, and is using the recently awarded second grant to develop a recipe and perform market testing. The aim is not to produce another ‘alternative’ bread replacer for the increasingly specialized health food market but to create a product with the potential to gain consumer traction in the mainstream arena.
And the commercial seaweed market is surprisingly large. According to a press release by MarketsandMarkets™, a B2B research provider focused on emerging opportunities and market threats, the global forecast for market value is projected to reach $21.11 billion within the next 4 years, with the brown seaweed segment – which includes the better known wakame (think miso soup) and lesser known bladderwrack (not quite as scary as its name might imply) – leading the charge.(3) Some of the interest in this vegetable may be its environmental pedigree. Seaweed is carbon negative, absorbing carbon dioxide from the ocean, and requires neither fertilizer nor – in a world of increasing resource allocation disparity – fresh water to grow rapidly and with few detrimental side effects to the environment.
But no theoretical pedigree – however exemplary – is going to be enough to turn consumers from the comfort of the known to a brand new, and slightly left of center product like seaweed bread if it is not immediately appealing. As an article in Fooddive noted “If the seaweed producer can successfully collaborate with a bakery to develop a neutral colored and tasting product, there is little doubt that it will be in demand.”(4) But “if SeaKelp+ tastes too much like the ocean or has a green tinge, it may cause consumers to associate their product with molding bread [and distributors] may also be turned off by its appearance.”(5)
That said, some seaweed products are already finding their place within the market with kelp jerky from Shoreline, a start-up based in New York, ands Ocean’s Halo’s answer to kale chips – seaweed chips – gaining consumer interest. Moreover, within Europe, the upscaling of seaweed production via patch harvesting in the coastal waters of Spain and Portugal has led to the development of sea vegetable-based pasta alternatives. Dubbed himanthalia – or sea spaghetti – by Seamore, a Dutch company specializing in creating foods that are both healthy and sustainable, the new alternative to the classic durum wheat-based food will offer an easy way to increase vegetable intake while simultaneously reducing carbohydrate loads. And, says Seamore’s founder Willem Sodderland, anything traditional dishes can do with pasta, Seamore’s sea vegetable substitute can do too: ‘“We chose to talk a lot about the cooking side and what kind of meals you can make – you can create all your classic Italian pasta dishes but with seaweed. […We’ve] made it easier. Now more and more we’re going to communicate about the health and sustainability benefits.”’(6)
OK, if seaweed is healthy and environmentally sound why are we not adopting it in droves?
Well, apart from the fact that the oceanic, salty, fishy tang can be an acquired taste, it can also have a dark side – and we’re not just referring to domestic doyenne Martha Stewart’s awkward embrace of seaweed teas. What worries us more is the outbreaks of foodborne illnesses that sickened more than 2000 people in Japan in 2017 and which were ultimately attributed to norovirus-contaminated nori, a sea vegetable widely used in as a topping for cooked rice. The results of an investigation published by the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that, although the outbreak affected four geographically remote areas, contamination by the norovirus could be traced back to one single processing facility. Of the affected, many were children who had been served the nori as a condiment atop boiled rice or with cooked vegetables as part of the school lunch program. Also affected were some teachers and food handlers who had partaken of the same lunch. Highly contagious through contact with substances, affected individuals, or contaminated surfaces, norovirus is the source of acute gastrointestinal distress and causes severe stomach pain, diarrhea and vomiting. With sensitive or compromised individuals it can even lead to death.
So what safeguards are in place for ensuring that our own home-grown sea vegetable-based foods are safe and contamination-free? With the Australian recall of The Whole Foodies Sea Vegetables seaweed for elevated arsenic levels in 2018 pressure is upon the FDA and the producers themselves to create robust regulation for this growing market. After all, when consumers purchase seaweed food products it is likely to be for health-related or dietary reasons and the greatest care must be taken to ensure that products live up to their reputations. In Canada’s Nova Scotia one operation does advertise that it has an active Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) protocol in place and that its quality assurance includes Hazard and Critical Control Points (HACCP) certification. Acadian Seaplants Limited is a biotech company that processes seaweed based consumables for the food, agricultural, agri-chemical, and biochemical markets both within North America and as far east as Ireland and Scotland and as far west as Japan. According to its website, the company places excellence in quality assurance as a centerpiece of its corporate vision, presumably in recognition of the fact that consumer uptake depends very heavily upon confidence in the health-promoting properties of the product: ‘We also take great pride in our ability to satisfy the exacting Japanese food market. Our dedicated team of Quality Assurance professionals work diligently with our manufacturing, sales, and technical teams to continuously enhance our ability to “wow” our customers, and keep them coming back for the best marine plant products available.’(7)
Perhaps the ‘Wow’ factor is key to the increased adoption of this nutritious but frequently overlooked vegetable. Very often the most nutrient-dense foods lack a public relations effort to endear them to the public – who outside of Food Contact Surfaces readers would know of the nutrient impact of duckweed, for instance? Furthermore, as we find an increasing number of uses for other former superfoods – remember the erstwhile darling of wrap ingredients, spinach, which is now being sought for bio-medical purposes such as growing human hearts – seaweed might just be the New Big Thing to find in our flatbreads, wraps, and crackers. If only we can get over that salty-fishy taste of the ocean question…
Is seaweed in your pantry? Do you nibble on nori or are pretzels still your go-to for salty snacks? We’d love to know your thoughts!