The essential guide to edible seaweed

17 April 2024, 14:00 PM
  • From snacks to drinks, seaweed is making its way into consumers’ baskets. Find out why this superfood is trending now, the health benefits of seaweed, and popular seaweed varieties
The essential guide to edible seaweed

Boasting sustainable credentials, health benefits and a moreish salty flavour, it’s no surprise that seaweed snacks and other food products made from the sea-grown vegetables are taking off in the UK. What’s more, the growing interest in global flavours from beyond the UK’s borders continues to drive up the demand for ingredients used in cuisines from around the world.

And it’s not just the food industry that has a sudden interest in seaweed – from cosmetics to agriculture, innovators are finding uses for this superstar crop. In the UK, a recent report found the number of businesses related to the seaweed industry have more than doubled since 2016, with a third of those are targeting the food and drink sector.

Amelia Trillo of Japan Centre, a London-based Japanese food hall and online supermarket, tells Speciality Food the seaweed snack market has been growing steadily thanks to these intersecting interests. “Due to its many nutrients and prebiotic qualities, seaweed has the potential to become much more common in our everyday meals and snacks here in the UK.” Speciality Food digs into the details.

4 reasons seaweed is becoming more popular

1. A sustainable product

With the climate crisis and environmental damage from food and farming top of mind for British producers – and consumers – it pays to be on the look-out for products using more sustainable ingredients, and seaweed certainly ticks all the boxes. 

“It is sustainably grown, not requiring land or extra water, no pesticides or fertilisers,” says Reema Pillai, sports nutritionist at Dietitian Fit. “In fact, growing seaweed can also help provide a habitat for fish and other organisms, supporting the ocean’s biodiversity,” Reema adds.

Indeed, as Thomas Thulesen, founder of seaweed snacks Wavy Wonders, previously told Speciality Food: “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.”

2. Health benefits of eating seaweed

As well as being good for the planet, seaweed is good for our diets. “Seaweed is rich in minerals and vitamins, which adds extra nutrition to snacks and meals, and is high in dietary fibre, which promotes microbes for a healthy gut,” says Amelia. “Seaweed is a great way to add a touch of health to snacks,” she adds. And health just happens to be one of the biggest trends in the snacking sector today.

“In terms of their health benefits, seaweed snacks are an excellent alternative to processed alternatives like crisps, although this does depend on how the seaweed is prepared,” says Carolina Goncalves a health expert at Pharmica. Seaweed chips and raw, unroasted seaweed products are rich in vitamins such as iodine and vitamin K, which, she says “contribute to crucial physiological functions like blood clotting and the prevention of arterial calcification (which can affect the heart).”

Seaweed is a fantastic source of magnesium, iodine and plant-based Omega 3 fatty acids, Reema adds, and according to the Asian snack and drink brand Kelly Loves, nori, one of the most popular types of edible seaweed, has a particularly high nutritional value, with up to 25-30% protein by dry weight, as well as vitamins and minerals.

Taken together with the sustainability factor, Carolina says, this is proliferating the importance of seaweed in the fine foods space. “Health consciousness as a consumer trend often goes hand in hand with an awareness of and care for the environment,” she says, and consumers who fall into this category drive the food industry to innovate and offer new dishes and products.

3. Seaweed is versatile

Many already know that seaweed is used to make sushi, but today it is used in countless food (and even drink) products, and served in several formats that have boosted its versatility in the eyes of Brits. 

“It can be made into a number of snacks, including seaweed crisps or seaweed thins, which are easily portable and do not require refrigeration, making it a great snack to have on the go,” Reema says.

4. Popularity of global cuisines

Amelia notes the increase in popularity of Japanese and Korean snacks and foods as yet another reason behind seaweed’s trending status. Over recent years, both cuisines have been bubbling up in our kitchens more and more often. With the simplicity of sharing recipes on social media, taking ideas from international cuisines has never been easier.

What does seaweed taste like?

Each type of seaweed has a unique flavour, but most edible seaweeds are salty and savoury. Others have a slightly sweet or ‘fresh’ flavour.

Amelia says that the “delicious salty flavour” of certain seaweeds makes them a perfect accompaniment for snack food products. It “makes snacks taste even better,” she says.

Which seaweeds are edible?

Unless you’re planning to forage for your own seaweed snack straight from the coast, you won’t have to worry too much about choosing a non-edible seaweed – but it’s worth noting the most common types of edible seaweed that you’ll encounter both in food products and sold by wholesalers:

Nori – comes in thin sheets and is used to make sushi rolls, as well as increasingly being sold in snacking formats

Kombu – used in dashi, a Japanese stock that is often used in miso soup

Wakame – this stringy seaweed is used to make seaweed salads and is slightly sweet

Irish moss – this can be pickled or used in salads, but it is also known for its use in agar-agar, a vegetarian gelatine substitute

Umibudo – also known as sea grapes, this looks like caviar and is often eaten raw as a topping on dishes

Dulse – sold in dry flakes, dulse is often sprinkled on top of soups, salads and noodle dishes or used elsewhere as a savoury seasoning (some say it can be a good bacon substitute for vegans)

Which seaweed products should retailers stock?

Fine food retailers now have plenty of choice when considering stocking seaweed, from authentic Japanese products to the brands making use of the seaweed on our coastal doorstep.

Japan Centre’s best-selling seaweed product is its nori sheets, Amelia says. “These are unseasoned, dried sheets of seaweed, typically used for sushi and onigiri rice balls.” As well as being used in sushi making, nori can be used to add a salty and even fishy flavour to meals, which can be a boon to vegetarians or vegans. Brands like BettaF!sh use seaweed to flavour their vegan fish products.

What’s more, using nori gives home cooks a flair for authenticity. “Nori sheets have been used in Japan since the 1600s,” Amelia says.

Another hit product at Japan Centre is rice crackers with seaweed. “The thin seaweed adds an additional crunch to the crackers and flavours it well,” Amelia says.

Here in the UK, a number of producers are using seaweed to flavour their products. SHORE makes vegan seaweed chips from its base in the Scottish highlands. The brand is seeking to help Scotland’s edible seaweed industry take off to benefit the environment as well as rural communities. Other snacking products include Kelly Loves’ grab and go seaweed rice crisps or wasabi nori snacks, and Wavy Wonders’ seaweed and seed snacking bags.

Elsewhere in the UK, others are pushing the boat out a little further. The Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company has created a range of seaweed seasonings and condiments, like seaweed ketchup and puree, as well as seaweed-infused rum, while Dà Mhìle Distillery creates a seaweed gin.

As Carolina says, seaweed in all of its forms is a great fit for the fine food industry. “Whether the seaweed is served whole or blanched after being sourced sustainably or is given the molecular gastronomy treatment by being dehydrated and turned into dust or a gel or foam, the nutritional profile of this ingredient along with the novelty factor of using it in parts of the world where it is uncommon to do so makes it perfect for the fine foods space and equally as a healthy ingredient to prepare nutritional foods and snacks.”

Take the time to educate your customers about the benefits of seaweed, and you could find a new hit product for your shelves.

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