Lia Heifetz of Barnacle Foods hauls kelp for salsa. Bethany Sonsini Goodrich

A Plea for Kelp: These Farmers and Chefs Want to Make Seaweed the Next Superfood

By Sarah Bedolfe

Summer in southeast Alaska is kelp season for the cofounders of Barnacle Foods, Lia Heifetz and Matt Kern. Each week, the pair watches the tides and weather, waiting for the right moment to cruise out to the abundant kelp beds offshore. They lean over the side of the boat and pull up the fronds and stalks, one piece at a time. As soon as they get back to shore, they start processing the day's harvest into a local delicacy: kelp salsa.

Salsa and Alaskan algae might seem like odd bedfellows, but for Barnacle Foods, it's a calculated decision. The kelp's savory notes make the salsa's flavor "a little more explosive," according to Kern. And the pairing is also a practical one. "Salsa is such a familiar food item," Heifetz said. It's "a gateway to getting more people to eat seaweed."

Barnacle Foods is part of a small but growing movement of chefs, scientists and farmers who want to make edible kelp go mainstream. Seaweed is an extra-healthy crop, rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium, iodine and omega-3 fatty acids. And it's not only good for you, it's good for the planet.

"It's a crop that we can grow without the use of freshwater and without the use of land," said Paul O'Connor, a marine scientist and founder of This is Seaweed, which sells edible Irish seaweed. It's "99 percent environmentally friendly."

Something for Everyone

Kelp is a near-perfect food, but there's one problem: Not enough people eat it. Though seaweed is a cooking mainstay in Asian countries, it's struggled to gain a toehold in places like Europe and the U.S. Food innovators like Mark Kulsdom are trying to change this.

Kulsdom is the founder of The Dutch Weed Burger, a company that introduces diners to seaweed through the power of fast food. The weed burger's cheeky name grabs the attention of tourists and festival-goers in the Netherlands, though there are no illicit ingredients to be found.

The burger, bun and sauce each use a different type of locally grown seaweed or algae. With the recent opening of The Joint, Kulsdom's new restaurant in Amsterdam, his team expanded the menu to include seaweed-y variations of sausage, shawarma and fish and chips.

Kulsdom emphasized that even though The Joint's dishes are vegan, his clientele are not necessarily strict herbivores. "We didn't so much want to cater to the vegan community," Kulsdom said, "we wanted to cater to everybody."

New and Old

O'Connor faces a different hurdle than Kulsdom. This is Seaweed sells various types of dried Irish seaweeds as seasonings for other foods. But home chefs face a learning curve with This is Seaweed's products, since dulse or alaria flakes aren't as familiar as black pepper. So, the company posts recipes and serving suggestions alongside its products. O'Connor recommends sprinkling a pinch of seaweed flakes on your egg in the morning, or perhaps on your potatoes or soup.

Though seaweed might seem exotic, O'Connor and other seaweed producers are tapping into centuries-old traditions. Seaweed was once a popular food in O'Connor's native Ireland, although it fell out of favor after being used as a staple during the Irish Potato Famine. In the U.S., Barnacle Foods' Heifetz noted that seaweed has long been an important traditional food for the native people of Southeast Alaska.

Changing Tides

Efforts to revive kelp could be paying off. According to O'Connor, public perceptions of seaweed in Europe and the U.S. seem to be changing. "People are more open to it, and they trust seaweed as something that has health benefits to it," he said. It's become more than just "that slimy thing that I slip on when I'm at the beach."

A selection of seaweed flakes. This is Seaweed

Growing more edible kelp could bring big benefits to the ocean. Seaweed helps maintain water quality by absorbing excess nutrients. Seaweed farms can even help the climate. Kelp takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, produces oxygen and can locally mitigate the effects of ocean acidification.

The future looks bright for seaweed purveyors everywhere. "We're really excited about the potential of seaweed and kelp as a major food source," Kern said. They hope to become steady buyers for seaweed farmers, promoting this sustainable industry in Alaskan waters. Heifetz added: "We hope that we can play a key role in sharing this amazing resource."

Show Comments ()

What Standing Rock Gave the World

By Jenni Monet

At the height of the movement at Standing Rock, Indigenous teens half a world away in Norway were tattooing their young bodies with an image of a black snake. Derived from Lakota prophecy, the creature had come to represent the controversial Dakota Access pipeline for the thousands of water protectors determined to try to stop it.

Keep reading... Show less
Zero Point Zero

Netflix’s 'Rotten' Reveals the Perils of Global Food Production

By Katherine Wei

We all love to eat. And increasingly, our cultural conversation centers around food—the cultivation of refined taste buds, the methods of concocting the most delectable blends of flavors, the ways in which it can influence our health and longevity, and the countless TV shows and books that are borne of people's foodie fascinations. However, there's one aspect we as consumers pay perhaps too little heed: the production of food before it reaches markets and grocery store shelves. We don't directly experience this aspect of food, and as a result, it's shrouded in mystery, and often, confusion.

Keep reading... Show less
About 2,700 square miles of Amazonia's forest is destroyed annually. Dallas Krentzel / Flickr

Earth's Intact Forests Are Invaluable, and in Danger

By Tim Radford

The world's unregarded forests are at risk. Intact forest is now being destroyed at an annual rate that threatens to cancel out any attempts to contain global warming by controlling greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new study.

A second study finds that trees in the tropical regions are dying twice as fast as they did 35 years ago—and human-induced climate change is a factor.

Keep reading... Show less
Modern Event Preparedness / Flickr

5 Billion People Could Have Poor Access to Water by 2050, UN Warns

As the world's population grows and the planet warms, demand for water will rise but the quality and reliability of the supply is expected to deteriorate, the United Nations said Monday in this year's World Water Development Report.

"We need new solutions in managing water resources so as to meet emerging challenges to water security caused by population growth and climate change," said Audrey Azoulay, director-general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in a statement. "If we do nothing, some five billion people will be living in areas with poor access to water by 2050."

Keep reading... Show less

28 Activists Arrested at Kinder Morgan Pipeline Construction Site

Despite a court-ordered injunction barring anyone from coming within 5 meters (approximately 16.4 feet) of two of its BC construction sites, opponents of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion sent a clear message Saturday that they would not back down.

Twenty-eight demonstrators were arrested March 17 after blocking the front gate to Kinder Morgan's tank farm in Burnaby, BC for four hours, according to a press release put out by Protect the Inlet, the group leading the protest.

Keep reading... Show less

Three Outlandish Ideas to Cool the Planet

By Jeremy Deaton

Climate change is a big, ugly, unwieldy problem, and it's getting worse by the day. Emissions are rising. Ice is melting, and virtually no one is taking the carbon crisis as seriously as the issue demands. Countries need to radically overhaul their energy systems in just a few short decades, replacing coal, oil and gas with clean energy. Even if countries overcome the political obstacles necessary to meet that aim, they can expect heat waves, drought and storms unseen in the history of human civilization and enough flooding to submerge Miami Beach.

Keep reading... Show less

Those Little Produce Stickers? They’re a Big Waste Problem

By Dan Nosowitz

Those little produce stickers are ubiquitous fruits and vegetables everywhere. But, as CBC notes, they're actually a significant problem despite their small size.

Keep reading... Show less

Despite Trump’s Bluster, U.S. Officials and Scientists Maintain Climate Work with International Partners

Trump has loudly declared his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement, but, behind the tweets and the headlines, U.S. officials and scientists have carried on working with international partners to fight climate change, Reuters reported Wednesday.

Keep reading... Show less


The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!