Much of America’s efforts to grow a more sustainable food system have historically targeted land use. The past year’s reports of overfishing, rising sea levels, and plastic pollution, however, have forced many to reckon with the exploitation of our oceans as well. As a result, consumers are seeking sea-friendly food products: Alt-seafood sales rose 23 percent in 2020 and sales of sustainable frozen seafood products were up 26 percent in 2021. The movement will evolve in 2022 by welcoming a great wave of sustainable ocean farming, particularly for edible sea greens like kelp and seaweed. These foods have long been eaten by cultures around the world, but sea greens will be consumed even more Stateside in 2022 thanks to their ability to fight climate change, improve water quality, provide potent nutritional benefits, and add delicious flavor to plant-based meals.
Sea greens—including red seaweed, brown seaweed, and Japanese kelp—are what’s used to make the 145 edible forms of algae, such as wakame, kombu, nori, and Irish moss. These plants on their own are inherently beneficial for the environment: Researchers from Harvard recently found that coastal ecosystems (which include kelp and other sea greens) absorb more than 20 times more carbon from the atmosphere per acre than land forests. They can also be an incredibly sustainable crop, argues Courtney Boyd Meyers, a Well+Good Wellness Trends Advisor and founder and CEO of AKUA, a company founded in 2016 that works with regenerative ocean farms in New England to produce kelp-based jerky and burgers. “[Sea greens are] a crop that requires no irrigation, no fertilizer or herbicides, no feed, and no arable land to grow,” she says, keeping their environmental impact small.
These sustainable traits make sea greens virtuous and profitable, as consumers are more interested than ever in purchasing products that benefit the environment. According to a March 2021 report by IBM, 55 percent of global consumers say sustainability is “very or extremely important” when choosing a brand—up 22 percent from 2019. That mindset will likely benefit the commercial seaweed industry, which is projected to achieve a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of more than 12 percent between 2020 and 2026, per a Global Market Insights report. In May, the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations (FAO) declared that we are about to enter a “seaweed revolution,” and in September 2020, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) named seaweed farming the fastest growing sector in aquaculture.
“[Sea greens are] a crop that requires no irrigation, no fertilizer or herbicides, no feed, and no arable land to grow.” Courtney Boyd Meyers, founder and CEO of AKUA
Of course, consuming sea greens is hardly new. Edible forms of algae grow in marine environments around the world. They’ve been dietary staples in East Asia, particularly Japan, China, and Korea, for centuries. Aztecs collected tecuitlatl (spirulina) and pressed it into bread; and dulse was a key source of sustenance in Ireland during the Great Famine of the 1840s. But because fresh seaweed wasn’t available commercially in the U.S. until Atlantic Sea Farms (formerly Ocean Approved) was founded in Maine in 2009, many Americans could historically only find it in dried forms, like sheets of nori, or in restaurants, where imported seaweed could be rehydrated prior to serving.
Now, with sustainability at the top of many consumers’ minds—and with more seaweed-based products readily available in supermarkets—sea greens are finally getting their turn on more Americans’ plates. “Since 2018 in particular, the seaweed category has grown over 63 percent in sales with strong double digit growth year over year,” says Diego Norris, chief marketing officer of gimMe snacks, which has become the top-selling organic seaweed brand in the U.S. since it launched in 2012. He shares that this year, gimMe is on pace to more than double its business since 2018. On Instacart, kelp sales have risen 31 percent in the last six months alone, says Laurentia Romaniuk, Instacart’s trends expert and a Well+Good Wellness Trends Advisor.$85b
Sustainability isn’t the only draw of sea greens; Americans’ growing interest in eating more plant-based foods has also led many people to try kelp- and algae-based products to help meet their nutritional requirements. In fact, according to a Global Market Insights report that projects the commercial seaweed market will reach $85 billion by 2026, the booming demand is in large part due to sea greens’ nutritional value. "Sea vegetables are rising in popularity because they are among the most nutrient-dense foods we can eat; they provide so many minerals essential to maintaining optimal bodily function,” says Jennifer Maeng, MS, RD, CDN. Seaweed, she explains, is packed with iodine, which is essential for thyroid and brain function and hard to come by. It’s also rich in manganese, vitamins C, B, and K, fiber, and iron, and is one of the few vegan sources of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA.
Further turning the tide in favor of sea greens is its unique flavor. Andrea Xu, co-founder of online grocer Umamicart, says that she’s also witnessed an enormous uptick in the popularity of umami products, or foods that offer the complex, deliciously savory flavor of umami—with which sea greens are naturally packed. “We've found that our customers are increasingly knowledgeable about what ‘umami' is and which foods are umami-rich, particularly seaweed,” she says, adding that sales of seaweed products on Umamicart doubled in the month of October alone.
In 2022, umami-lovers in the U.S. will be thrilled to find seaweed in more foods than ever before. In April, Atlantic Sea Farms’ seaweed—which was used in a special-edition Sweetgreen kelp bowl this year—landed in Wegmans and Whole Foods stores nationwide in fermented form (think kelp-based kimchi, seaweed salad, and sauerkraut). Crave noodles? Check out Noodie’s Irresistable Ramen packs made from spirulina jade noodles, which launched in August, or Blue Evolution’s line of seaweed pasta in shapes like rotini and penne. Next year, look out for the Wild Blueberry & Ginger and Cranberry Kelp Cubes from Atlantic Sea Farms, which are intended to serve as a base for smoothies, as well as AKUA’s plant-based crab cakes made entirely from kelp (on track to launch in the spring). Nestlé also announced in October that it will be launching a line of vegan shrimp in Europe (and soon, the U.S.) called Garden Gourmet Vrimp made from a blend of nori, peas, and konjac root.
It’s an exciting future for sea greens. But Lia Heifetz, co-founder of Alaska-based kelp food company Barnacle Foods, says the industry has to be vigilant if it wants to remain sustainable as it grows. “Responsible kelp farming means using seed species that won’t disrupt wild kelp beds, and instead making sure that these continue to thrive,” she says. “It also means closely monitoring and controlling your impact on marine mammals, fish, urchins, erosion, and ocean nutrient availability.” Social implications, Heifetz says, are equally important. “We must always make sure that kelp farming is being developed in a socially equitable way and that companies are held accountable for involving local Indigenous communities—they are the original stewards of the coast, and should benefit from the industry’s growth.”
With those important cautions in mind, Bren Smith, co-founder and co-executive director of GreenWave, a nonprofit dedicated to the support of regenerative ocean farmers in the era of climate change, sums up the potential of sea greens perfectly. “With ocean agriculture in its infancy, we finally have an opportunity to do food right; to build a food system from the bottom up,” he says. “We can avoid the mistakes of industrial agriculture and aquaculture, farm for the benefit of all instead of just the few, and weave economic and social justice into its DNA—all while capturing carbon, creating millions of jobs, and feeding the planet.” If sea greens aren’t the future of food, what is?
Photo Credit: Stocksy/Martí Sans