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Used widely in Japanese cuisine as the base for salads, wrapped around sushi rice or floating in miso soup, seaweed is a powerhouse of nutrients with sustainable credentials to match.
Britain is beginning to dip its toes into the sea, but with a lack of mainstream appeal, how can indies champion this coastal vegetable and encourage their customers to give it a go?
Why is seaweed so sustainable?
Put simply by Thomas Thulesen, founder of seaweed snacks Wavy Wonders, “Seaweed is a no-input crop that grows naturally in the sea. The joy of working with it is that it leaves the environment it is grown in better off than if we didn’t grow it.”
In fact, for Deniz Ficicioglu, founder of plant-based tuna brand BettaF!sh, “Cultivating seaweed helps our fragile ecosystem regain its balance. The plants are grown on lines in Norway’s crystal-clear fjords and off the coasts of Northern Ireland and during the growing season from November to May, the seaweed farms transform into a bountiful habitat for small fish and many other organisms. By growing seaweed, we increase our oceans’ biodiversity in a very natural way.”
“Seaweed has huge environmental power because it is unique in requiring no land, no fresh water, no fertilisers, and no pesticides”, according to Keith Paterson, co-founder of SHORE, creators of seaweed crisps and pestos.
“It provides a habitat for marine life, absorbs oceanic carbon as it grows and, when harvested sustainably, naturally regenerates. Food security and the climate emergency mean we need more seaweed in our diets”, he continued.
Seaweed is also rich in protein, fibre and micronutrients ranging from iodine and iron to magnesium and omega-3. And according to Thomas, “In a world where we need to diversify our protein sources and find new ways to feed 10 billion people very soon, the sea seems like a big part of the solution.”
“The gap we address is the lack of seaweed in consumers’ diets, despite its potential as a very real solution to the global food crisis”, Deniz added.
Why should independent fine food retailers be looking to stock seaweed products?
As always, an independent’s main goal is to offer something different to the multiples that also champions taste, quality and provenance.
“Seaweed is already more popular than you may think and it’s growing, with seaweed snacks alone worth more than £4m at retail and growing at +30% in the last 12 months”, Keith explained. “But because seaweed is still not mainstream in major supermarkets, it’s a great opportunity to offer customers something new and differentiated, yet still popular.”
Innovation has been ripe in the seaweed industry, and according to Thomas, “Seaweed products have now made it to a place where we have a real claim to taste. The logical benefits have always been there, but we are now moving into an era of delicious seaweed products.
“We see a big gap in the snacking market for an alternative to the usual snack options. It’s a growing market that feeds into mega trends of environmentally conscious eating, coupled with the ongoing health focus.
“Independent retail customers tend to be more interested in trying new things and are environmentally conscious, so seaweed ticks all the boxes. As the climate emergency becomes ever more pressing, stocking snacks that are part of the solution will enable them to signal they are doing what they can, while also delivering on their promise of quality.”
Encouraging customers to try and buy seaweed
While seaweed provides a whole host of environmental and health benefits, getting all your customers on board could pose a challenge.
When it comes to encouraging regulars to give it a go, “We think sampling is paramount as the proof is in the pudding”, Thomas said. “It should convince people that they are making a decision on flavour that also happens to have huge personal and planetary health benefits, rather than just the ‘right’ decision.”
Thomas also points out that, “Clear engaging storytelling is equally important, extolling the amazing benefits of the product while also dispelling some of the negative connotations that Western audiences sometimes have with seaweed.
“There is a huge opportunity with the younger generation eating our product and creating a new impression of seaweed as a food, so it becomes mainstream, without the need for extra encouragement.”
For Keith, knowledge is key when it comes to seaweed. “Our experience is that most consumers still need help with understanding and having confidence in cooking with seaweed”, he explained.
“At SHORE we use our seaweed as a hero ingredient in plant-based snacks and sauces to help consumers get around this knowledge barrier. By providing seaweed as part of familiar product formats that taste delicious and happen to be better for you, we help bring new consumers to seaweed every day.
“Impulse products like crisps have really driven sales and trial of seaweed, it’s a great category to introduce new ingredients, one where consumers are always keen to try new flavours.”