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Feature

Seaweed: An ocean of opportunity

By Lynda Searby , 17-Feb-2016
Last updated on 18-Feb-2016 at 10:24 GMT2016-02-18T10:24:57Z

Potential: through specific nutrients, seaweed could offer a solution for obesity and diabetes (credit: Ian Wallace)
Potential: through specific nutrients, seaweed could offer a solution for obesity and diabetes (credit: Ian Wallace)

Overlooked for so long, seaweed is finally becoming big business.

Key points

Japan, China, South Korea and other Asian countries have a long history of edible seaweed consumption that continues to the present day.

Sushi is wrapped in sheets of nori, the big-leafed kelp kombu is a key ingredient in dashi broth, and bright green wakame often features in salads and soups.

In contrast, and with the exception of Welsh national dish laverbread, sea algae doesn’t have much of a tradition in European cuisine.

However, that is beginning to change. There are indications that western consumers are starting to look beyond the slimy surface to the flavour and nutritional value that seaweed can bring.

Last year, Asda started selling seaweed sausages, while Tesco became the first multiple to stock fresh seaweed, selling punnets of sea spaghetti harvested off the Cornish coast. So just how popular can seaweed become?

“The use of seaweed as a food is starting to grow outside of Asia, as consumers become increasingly positive about adding it to normal foods,” says Fabrice Bohin, chief executive of French biotech firm Eviagenics. He estimates that globally, the market for whole seaweed is worth about $5bn, and growing.

There are two main drivers for the inclusion of seaweed in foods for western consumers nutrition and salt replacement.

“Seaweeds contain a vast range of minerals, trace elements, vitamin groups, amino acids, polysaccharides, antioxidants and more,” says Dr Craig Rose, md of supplier Seaweed & Co.

“They offer an excellent base for general nutrition as an ingredient in food and nutraceuticals and a rich, natural and good source of specific nutrients such as iodine.”

In terms of salt replacement, Rose says “the right seaweed can offer natural, clean-label solutions”. His company’s dried and milled Hebridean seaweed, for example, is used commercially as a salt replacer.

Extract market (return to top)

Arguably, though, it is the smaller seaweed extract market that shows the most promise.

“Seaweed as a whole food is extremely beneficial, but key extracts also offer huge potential. Seaweeds can provide specific antioxidants, polyphenols and polysaccharides that can provide health benefits for diabetes and weight management, heart health and more,” says Rose.

Bohin values the seaweed extracts market at around $2bn. Conventional seaweed extracts, such as agar-agar, carrageenan and alginates, account for 80% of this total, while speciality extracts isolated for their health properties make up the remaining 20%. And this tiny but rapidly growing niche, which takes in extracts such as phycobiliprotein, fucoidan and laminarin, is the space to watch, according to Bohin.

“This market is booming,” he says. “Whereas conventional seaweed extracts are showing single-digit growth, speciality extracts are experiencing double-digit growth.”

Eviagenics bridges both conventional and speciality extracts to valorise the complete raw material, Bohin says. “Most companies extract one component and then waste the remaining 80% of the raw material. We are working towards selective extraction of fresh raw material close to source,” he claims.

Another player in the seaweed extracts space, Marinova, also confirms that there is “tremendous interest” building.

At present, Europe is the company’s smallest market, with its Maritech-branded fucoidan extract commercially available in just a handful of products. Marinova business development manager Kevin Krail attributes this in part to the EU regulatory framework, which makes it “very difficult for bioactive ingredients that do not have an extensive dossier of clinical testing”.

However, he adds that Marinova has just been advised by a regulatory consultancy that it does not need to register as a novel food ingredient.

Marinova is investigating fucoidan in relation to several health indications, first and foremost immune priming or anti-cancer.

Major research (return to top)

“We have a major research programme underway,” says Krail. “We have worked our way through in-vitro studies and have now started animal studies. The initial results will be published next year.”

Despite little promotion of research findings, fucoidan is becoming known as a natural complementary medicine for cancer patients, says Krail.

“The consumers that are buying fucoidan supplements have done quite a bit of research, and the health benefit they are seeking is to boost immune systems and help fight cancer.”

Seaweed is also under investigation in relation to other health benefits, and could, according to Rose, offer a potential solution for obesity and diabetes through the provision of specific nutrients namely alginates, polyphenols and iodine.

“Specific polysaccharides found in some seaweeds have been shown to delay stomach emptying, thus keeping people fuller longer. Also, alginates can reduce the amount of fat absorbed by the body, meaning more will pass directly through,” he says.

“Specific polyphenols have been shown to inhibit certain enzymes responsible for the breakdown of carbohydrates. This means a slower and more sustained release of sugars to the blood, thus potentially aiding blood sugar management and keeping you fuller longer.”

Seaweed & Co is involved in research with Newcastle University on obesity and diabetes through the mechanism of its seaweeds, and how they impact on the slowed release of sugars to the blood.

Barriers to growth (return to top)

Despite having everything going for it, even seaweed’s most loyal advocates concede there are barriers to its development as an ingredient.

“Probably the biggest barrier is the concern about taste for western palates,” says Krail.

Rose expands on this point, saying: “Seaweeds can sometimes, but not always, overpower other flavours in foods and beverages, and may not be to everyone’s taste.”

However, he says that natural flavour maskers could address these concerns, and scalable sustainability presents a greater challenge.

“If the wrong species from the wrong locations are used, there will be issues with market growth when demand outstrips sustainable supply.”

He says Seaweed & Co has specifically selected species that are still wild harvested, but have huge scope for sustainable growth.

“Some species, and some companies, we believe, are developing markets reliant on unscalable and thus unsustainable supply.”

He says that for species that may be more limited, the only plausible future would be to cultivate seaweed.

Bohin agrees that raw material availability is likely to be the biggest limiting factor on future growth.

“You need to be located close to a safe, clean, scalable raw material source. Chile, where we source our seaweed, is one of those few places.”

But Bohin is confident that the industry will find ways of meeting growing demand. After all, unlike most crops, seaweed does not have to compete for soil, and doesn’t require pesticides, fertilisers or irrigation water characteristics that will become increasingly important as the global population grows.

“I firmly believe seaweed has long-term value. It is one of the most interesting raw materials and one that is yet to be fully explored,” says Bohin.

As an ingredient, seaweed ticks all the boxes it’s natural, healthy and sustainable. And there’s a big opportunity for the food industry to harness the nutritional properties of whole seaweed as well as the health benefits of isolated extracts.

While it might take longer for these specific compounds to find their place in the world of nutraceutical and supplement ingredients, with scientific backing and an evangelical approach, they surely will.