Seaweed ingredients make waves in Europe

11 Jun 2019

Seaweed consumption is on the rise in Europe, but it remains a niche ingredient. Does industry have what it takes to bring seaweed into the mainstream?

The western market for seaweed ingredients is still in its infancy, but growing rapidly. According to Mintel, the share of algae-containing food and drink launches in Europe grew from just 0.6% between October 2012 and September 2013 to 1.4% between October 2016 and September 2017 – but about two-thirds of those launches contained spirulina, which is on the rise as a natural colorant.

Seaweed ingredients make waves in Europe
Seaweed ingredients are already well-known to Europeans in Asian food

However, sea vegetables such as wakame, nori and kelp are also on the rise as consumers embrace them for their “superfood” status, interesting flavours and textures, and seaweed extracts and seasonings are also starting to appear. Israel-based Salt of the Earth, for example, supplies a product that combines seaweed extract with other umami-rich ingredients to cut both salt and sugar in condiments and sauces by playing up their hearty, savoury flavours.

According to Mintel Food and Drink Analyst Julie Buech, “The growing momentum of algae as an ingredient in food and drink innovation marks a milestone in the evolution towards more plant-centric eating.”

Indeed, some varieties of algae are particularly promising as a protein source, and compare favourably with land-based plant protein sources. Chlorella, for instance, has about twice the protein of soy and about eight times the protein of rice, making it an interesting ingredient for companies looking to capitalise on consumer interest in plant protein.

Algae is already finding its way into a range of foods, such as seaweed crisps from German company Kulau, and “sea spaghetti” from firms like the Netherlands-based Seamore Foods – which also makes a vegan bacon alternative from 100% seaweed. Such ingredients profit from an existing, well-established market for Asian-inspired foods containing seaweed in Europe; the challenge now is for companies to prove the flavours of algae belong in western-style foods too.

Seaweed ingredients benefit not only from their appeal as plant foods, but also because of their high nutritional value. This varies depending on the variety, but many are high in protein and minerals such as iodine, potassium, magnesium, calcium and iron, and can also contain high levels of vitamins A, C, E and K, as well as fibre and polyunsaturated fatty acids.

What is more, as consumers increasingly seek out more sustainable food choices, seaweed is hard to beat. It is carbon negative, meaning it actually absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and it requires no irrigation water, pesticides, fertilisers or agricultural land, making it one of the world’s most sustainable raw materials for food.

Food manufacturers working with algae have much to gain from its strong environmental and nutritional positioning – and those already doing so have shown that it is possible to make seaweed tasty enough for mainstream European consumers.

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