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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Simonds

Beyond Tofu: Seaweed's Ascent as a Protein Powerhouse



Marine algae, explosive growers exhibiting all matter of unique metabolites and interesting compounds, have been for use in industries as disparate as fuel production and packaging. Still, the use case I remain most excited about is perhaps the oldest and simplest: eating it!


Six percent of global mammal biomass is wild, the other 94% comprises us humans (36%) and our livestock (58%). This is a massive ecological shift that has been in the works for millennia but has accelerated rapidly since the global population explosion following the industrial revolution.


Not only are we forcing wild species to the periphery (or fully off of the extinction precipice that bounds it), but the industrial machine of animal agriculture engenders an inferno of cruelty and suffering. It is warming the planet. It is resource intensive and it massively increases the area of wildlands that must come under cultivation, squeezing wild animals into ever-shrinking corners of the globe.


The percentage of vegetarians and vegans varies depending on which survey you look at. Based on a crude average, it seems fair to say that this fraction is probably still in the single digits. Certainly a niche market.


The market does seem to be growing, and, according to the Vegetarian Research Group’s surveys, doubled from around 3% to around 6% between 2009 and 2020. Six percent is small, but depending on what kind of growth curve this is, could be more significant in the near future.

Future Market Insights projects that the plant-based food products category could grow at an annual rate of 12.2% over the next ten years. If fantastic growth is your primary concern, protein from seaweed may be a great thing to look at getting into.


Despite the promise in these facts and figures, sometimes, as an individual, relying on that promise to decide where to direct my energy feels too passive. I wonder whether I should really invest my time or money based on where industry analysts predict growth is going to occur. Instead, it feels important to be an active part of creating that picture I want to see and driving growth in that sector. How does this affect my outlook on seaweeds?


Sure, the plant-based category of food markets in the United States is forecast to grow at a relatively fast rate year-over-year for the next several years which could result in market-beating investments and returns to the fiduciaries responsible for the wealth management of their clients etc etc etc. But seaweed consumption is going to to increase not because of these amorphous market trends but rather because it has to. Because we need to end cruelty to animals. Because we need to mitigate and adapt to global warming. Because we need to return land we have plowed, fenced, and sprayed to the wild mammals, birds, insects and plants that rely on them.


The imperative to reduce meat consumption is evident. Many of us have started, and I can tell you, we’re getting tired of tofu. Protein products from seaweed will be an excellent emerging alternative to beans and tofu. To get there, though, we will have to create this niche through excellent products, effective messaging, and cheap, efficient, sustainable seaweed production.


Oh, well gee! I guess if we just make seaweed cheaper, more popular, and more sustainable, the industry will be all set to take off! How did I not realize that?


Ok, ok, I get it. Not exactly groundbreaking. But today let’s zoom in on one of those categories: excellent products. Let's prove that we can develop delicious, seaweed-packed main-event protein sources that can be added to a wide variety of sauces and dishes.


Some seaweed food products have gained traction. Those packs of 20 or so small sheets of delicious salty nori are now ubiquitous on grocery store shelves and kelp flakes are showing up in more mainstream seasoning aisles. However, besides the disappointing amount of plastic packaging required to preserve 20 calories worth of nori snacks, it is also notable that these snacks only contain 20 calories. A single pack provides scarcely 1% of a person’s daily needs, and even then half of those calories are from the added oil. A single humble potato can easily provide five to ten times that much. While I cannot recommend a seaweed-only diet, it is obvious that there are quite a few calories being left on the table here.

A potato with a face celebrates by waving its arms behind four packages of nori snacks
A single large potato still has more calories than all of these nori snacks

Certainly there are reasons we don't see many main-event protein products yet. In fact, if you have worked with algae long enough you probably have a gut reaction already as to why we are not adding seaweed cubes to our stir fries or smacking big patties of kelp between our buns (indeed patties are slowly becoming available, but if, as a lover of seaweed, I have not yet been able to get my hands on one I think the point still stands).


Maybe you think the texture isn’t right. Or that seaweeds can accumulate too many heavy metals. Or maybe that it doesn’t have the same properties as [beans, grains, starches… fill in the staple]. Maybe the price point of peas and soy seems hopelessly out of reach. Or some other concern. But in spite of these challenges, the prospect is so exciting that it will not be ignored for long. Some of these are technical hurdles that are being overcome as we speak, and others are psychological hurdles [why there aren’t more psychological hurdles to mass slaughter, requiring enormous tracts of land to grow the food to support our lifestyle, and belching out greenhouse gasses on an absurd scale for that burger I cannot say].


For example, heavy metals may be able to be bred out of cultivars or eliminated from growth media. The cudgels of chemistry and food science may be brought to bear on unfortunate texture. The obscene growth rates of aqueous agriculture can, over time and paired with renewable energies, be leveraged against the cost. Each of these presents a unique technical challenge that I look forward to exploring in more depth. As the challenges are overcome, an exciting future will begin to unfold.


In many restaurants, consumers have the option to choose their “protein.” Choices often include chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, fish, and tofu. Depending on the cuisine, it may be beans instead of tofu. Compared to the protein-agnostic, the burgeoning population of vegetarians and vegans is left with scant and inferior choice. It doesn’t have to be this way!

A blue bowl with a brown rim filled with plain tofu and a single sprig of rosemary
It may look beautiful, but you know that cube is about to be extremely bland

At nearly 50% protein content in some species and bursting with flavor, seaweeds are an excellent option for plant-based proteins. While tofu is lauded for its blandness and ability to take on the flavor of whatever sauce it is cooked in, a minimally-to-moderately processed seaweed product would instead celebrate a complex savory-umami flavor. A unique texture would be an asset rather than something to process away. If meats were all the same texture and simply absorbed the flavor of the sauce they were cooked in, there would be no incentive to pay an extra $3 to add shrimp to a plate of pad thai.


Dreaming up and experimenting with these products will be the fun part, but a certain doggedness will also be required. Once, years ago when a nascent macroalgal passion was just taking hold in me, I bought a bag of dried seaweed from a grocery store and tried to make a burger. I rehydrated the seaweed, blended it, and mixed it with some lentils and bread crumbs. Despite a wonderful savory flavor profile, the result was so nauseatingly soft and slimy that I could not bring myself to finish. Typically enjoyed raw, seaweed does not always come together in an appetizing way in the pan. This can be fine, but to ease adoption for restaurants and home cooks alike, a product that can easily be dropped into a recipe at the same time as a meat product is a bonus.


I’m excited to keep experimenting in my own kitchen, and to keep tasting the exciting things that are coming out of the kitchens of companies like the Dutch Weed Burger, Akua, Umaro, and Algaia. It’s exciting that there are already folks working in this space–there’s lots of room for products to hit widely various flavors and sell at prices across the economic spectrum.


I’m hesitant to keep comparing seaweed to meat because seaweed is not meat and that’s a good thing, but it is important to recognize how massive and multi-sided this market should eventually be. It should be able to accommodate a cacophony of different companies and ideas. To illustrate this point, consider how many products come from one species of animal. Few would mistake a ball of ground beef for a slice of Kobe sashimi, which in turn would not serve the same culinary function as a filet mignon, despite their common origin as Bos taurus. These may come from different parts of the animal, different breeds, different regions, or indeed specific trademarks. This is all not to mention Sus domesticus (pigs), Gallus gallus (chickens), or any of the many other species that are raised for their meat.


Pigs and chickens forage lazily on a farm. In the foregroung, a sprig of seagrass hides behind a Groucho Marx disguise
With a moustache like that, who will be able to tell that the seaweed isn't meat??

Just imagine. It’s 2045. A new fad diet has emerged called “Terrestrial.” Forget for a moment that the premise of eating only land-based seems absurd, just take my word for it that the right combination of financially interested doctors, influencers, and cult leaders has materialized.


A couple of friends take the two open seats in front of you on a self-driving bus. Their conversation is strangely reminiscent of ones you’ve heard many times before about other diets. “Bro, you gotta try Terrestrial. I swear, I’ve lost so much weight.”


“I dunno man, I keep hearing that. It sounds great. I just don’t think I’m gonna be able to give up dulse balls. I never really learned how to cook without seaweed, you know?”


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