The bacon effect: OSU researchers turn forgotten seaweed into potential billion-dollar enterprise

[USA] It was pitched as a potential miracle of the culinary world: Oregon State University researchers had patented a strain of seaweed that, when fried, tasted like bacon.

Before two months ago, the words “bacon” and “seaweed” rarely collided in the same sentence, much less right next to each other.

But that changed in July when Chris Langdon, aquaculture researcher at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport; Chuck Toombs, a professor at OSU’s College of Business; members of the OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center; and workers at OSU’s Food Innovation Center in Portland began publicizing their work on the patented strain of the seaweed dulse called C3.

“When you fry it, which I have done, it tastes like bacon, not seaweed. And it’s a pretty strong bacon flavor,” said Chris Langdon, aquaculture researcher at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, said in a July press release.

bacon seaweed 2

Combining bacon, one of the most popular foods in America, with a seaweed that had health benefits that could rival kale, ignited a media firestorm.

Since the July press release, variations of the story have appeared in more than 1,000 media outlets around the world, including Time magazine, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Huffington Post, CNN, The Wall Street Journal and hundreds of blogs.

Esquire called dulse “kale’s funkier, cooler younger brother.” CNN said “food lovers might no longer have to choose between tastiness and healthiness.” NBC News ran the headline: “It Looks Like Bacon, Tastes Like Bacon, But It’s Seaweed.” In less than two months, the story became the subject of dozens of Internet memes, with some featuring a drooling Homer Simpson, the animated dad from “The Simpsons,” under the caption “Mmmm … bacon seaweed.”

Michael Morrissey, director of the OSU Food Innovation Center, said no one working with dulse expected the story to receive the kind of attention it did.

Some of the dulse recipes created at the Food Innovation Center clockwise from top left: smoked dulse peanut popcorn brittle, fresh C3 dulse, celery, a dressing of dulse soy sauce and rice wine vinegar, dulse rice crackers and deep fried dulse.
Some of the dulse recipes created at the Food Innovation Center clockwise from top left: smoked dulse peanut popcorn brittle, fresh C3 dulse, celery, a dressing of dulse soy sauce and rice wine vinegar, dulse rice crackers and deep fried dulse.

“Seaweed, when I was growing up as a kid, was something you saw on the beach and threw at your sister to make her scream. You never thought of it as a food. I think that kind of juxtaposition really fueled people’s imaginations,” he said. “This explosion of news on the seaweed has taken it up to a different level.”

But, like any media explosion, it eventually developed a hitch: few people who tried it thought it worked as a bacon substitute.

“I think there was some misconception that they developed a strain of seaweed that tastes like bacon. And that’s not the case,” Morrissey said. “People went crazy with that. But it really depends on how you cook it and prepare it.”

Langdon and other researchers at Hatfield experimented with cold smoking the dulse to bring out the similar qualities.

“Bacon is salted and smoked and fried. If you take dulse and smoke it and fry it, you get that bacon flavor,” Langdon said. But there are still flavors missing that could be key for bacon lovers. “It doesn’t have that bacon texture or that chewiness or fatty taste.”

Langdon said he never meant for his comments about the similarities to bacon to become confused with him saying it could work as a bacon replacement.

“You can’t be fooled: It’s not a replacement for bacon,” Langdon said.

Nevertheless, researchers are working on the idea of marketing Dulse as a possible bacon substitute for vegetarians, vegans or for those who don’t partake in pork products for religious purposes.

Abalone food to people food

Dulse, or Palmaria palmate, grows naturally in the wild on the northern Atlantic and Pacific coasts. OSU’s patented C3 strain of dulse is not a genetically modified organism, but is a plant that was previously selected and cultured for its fast-growing properties. C3 can grow by up to 45 percent per week, double the rate of wild dulse. Langdon previously used the C3 strain with great success marketing to large abalone-farming operations.

Janeth Martinez, a line cook at Local Ocean in Newport, prepares a shrimp and dulse salad. Exercutive chef Enrique Rodriguez has created several recipes from the C3 dulse that Josh Hulsey with Oregon State University has been donating to the restaurant every week
Janeth Martinez, a line cook at Local Ocean in Newport, prepares a shrimp and dulse salad. Exercutive chef Enrique Rodriguez has created several recipes from the C3 dulse that Josh Hulsey with Oregon State University has been donating to the restaurant every week

The notion of using strains of dulse for people is not a new one. It’s a common snack food in Iceland and other Nordic countries and has been a common staple for hundreds of years. Wild-harvested dulse is sold dried at U.S. health food stores, is known for its high fiber and other nutritional values. It commonly retails for about $60 a pound and can fetch as much as $90 a pound.

Last year, Toombs, the OSU business professor, went looking for potential student projects. After a chance encounter with Langdon, Toombs said he immediately perked up after hearing of the market value for dulse.

“As a marketing guy, I put (together) ‘fast-growing’ and ‘$60 a pound’ and thought there might be a business here,” Toombs said. “I said, ‘I don’t see why this couldn’t be the new kale.’”

Toombs later pitched the idea of marketing the fast-growing C3 to OSU’s Food Innovation Center in Portland.

The group soon decided to test the waters with a two-pronged approach — first, develop five or six possible products for taste-testing and second, market dulse to area seafood markets, including 2011 Iron Chef winner Vitaly Paley and his Portland restaurant Imperial. Toombs recalled bringing several pounds of dulse to Chef Paley.

A few days later, he got calls from Paley asking for more.

Jason Ball, a research chef at the Food Innovation Center, with a plate of dulse. Ball has created several different recipes with the dulse including a fried preparation that some say tastes similar to bacon.
Jason Ball, a research chef at the Food Innovation Center, with a plate of dulse. Ball has created several different recipes with the dulse including a fried preparation that some say tastes similar to bacon.

“He played around with it and fried it and fed it to his customers who came back and said it tasted like bacon,” Toombs said. “When you have a chef that fries it and his customers say it tastes like bacon, I’m not going to doubt it. Of course, as a marketing guy, bacon-flavored seaweed was something I knew we could all use so I was in favor of pushing that part of it.”

Man bites bacon

The idea of bacon-flavored seaweed hit the media channels soon after. But Toombs, Langdon and Morrissey say they didn’t expect the story to receive the kind of attention it did.

“I woke up in the morning after the release and I had 7,000 people that wanted to talk to us about dulse. We got invited to go on the ‘Today’ show,” Toombs said. “The story ended up being this sleepy little university with this technology that has created a worldwide phenomenon.”

But then the message in the media changed. Instead of a fast-growing strain of dulse with nutritional value being marketed as a potential food for Americans, hundreds of media outlets started pushing the angle that here was a new seaweed that tasted exactly like bacon without any of the health problems.

On “Today,” for example, Al Roker said “you can have all the flavor and none of the fat” and said it might be “the most perfect product ever.” One blog ran the headline “Brace Yourself! This Seaweed Is Healthier Than Kale and Tastes Like Bacon.” Another blog declared, “now vegans, you can finally taste the amazingness of bacon.”

“I look at that as a man-bites-dog moment,” Toombs said. “That was the news initially. But that wasn’t the only thing we were saying. But it only matters what the story becomes. I guess it’s a lot easier to create trends that manipulate people because of social media and the way things are today. What happened was the blogs just repeated what they thought they heard and didn’t do any research on their own.”

Then the backlash began: A few days later, Langdon received angry calls from people claiming they read online that the researchers were genetically modifying the seaweed to taste like bacon. One caller accused Langdon of splicing pig DNA with seaweed.

C3 Dulse developed by Oregon State University can be found on the menu at Local Ocean in Newport.
C3 Dulse developed by Oregon State University can be found on the menu at Local Ocean in Newport.
“People are very suspicious of anything that’s produced that’s fast growing and a little different,” Langdon said. “And there’s a huge hunger for news items out there and this is just one of the two- or three-week news items that hit the headlines and disappear.”

More than bacon

While hundreds of news publications ran with the bacon angle of the story, Toombs and several interested investors set up the company DulsEnergy, which will lead the charge in marketing dulse commercially. In October, the company plans to launch its first commercial dulse product — a salad dressing developed at the Food Innovation Center — at New Seasons Market in Portland. And in Newport, Local Ocean Seafoods is selling dulse as part of its specials, most recently on a shrimp and dulse salad.

In the meantime, the Food Innovation Center is continuing to experiment with more possibilities for the product, led by research chef Jason Ball. Ball created more than a dozen dulse products for taste testing, including dulse beer, veggie burgers, peanut brittle, rice crackers and fried dulse.

“A lot of people asked if the whole point of the project was to try to make a bacon substitute. But that wasn’t the case at all,” Ball said. “The fried dulse, or bacon dulse, was something we put together after the media attention to see how close we could get. I think it’s nice to take all of that publicity we’re getting and turn it around to all of this dulse work that is really interesting.”

Earlier this month, several hundred taste testers from the Portland area were brought in to the center to sample some of the products, with the dulse rice crackers, peanut brittle and salad dressing being named the initial favorites.

“The magic word that got everyone excited was bacon. But once people started to think about it and hear about it more, people realized that there are a lot more applications of dulse in the food industry,” Langdon said. “Seaweed is a healthy food and environmentally beneficial. I think that’s more important than the bacon idea. Whether it would’ve gotten the public attention the bacon story did, I doubt it.”

In Newport, Langdon and Scientific Technician Josh Halsey are researching the fastest and most cost-effective methods for growing dulse to prepare it for major commercial releases. They have two 8,000-liter tanks outside of their offices in Newport. But there are plans to add five more tanks in the coming months to match potential demand for additional dulse products. Halsey and Langdon are literally writing the manual on how to grow C3 at the most efficient rate.

“We’re well ahead of the game in figuring out how to grow this,” Halsey said. “Once it becomes available for consumers on a mass scale, they’ll need this.”

Looking back on the publicity around the product, Langdon said he wouldn’t shy away of making the same bacon comparisons that he did in the original press release, even though he acknowledged that dulse won’t work as a bacon replacement. He does question whether he would’ve focused more on the variety of applications to the product.

“If that piece had been added and incorporated in their stories, I think the overall impact on the thinking of humanity would’ve been beneficial,” Langdon said, adding that public relations representatives told him recently the dulse stories received millions of views online. “I think overall it did a lot of good.”

Josh Hulsey with Oregon State Univeristy is running experiments to determine the most effective way to grow dulse.
Josh Hulsey with Oregon State Univeristy is running experiments to determine the most effective way to grow dulse.

Toombs said the “bacon seaweed” stories helped grow the company DulsEnergy. And if he had to do everything again, he wouldn’t change a thing — except when to release the information.

“I would’ve delayed it a year because we can only create 150 pounds a week,” he said. “We have to scale it up and it’s not as easy as you think. Looking back on it now I was amazed and excited by the potential like everyone else was. We’ve uncovered one of the hidden gems of the research at Oregon State University and turned around a patent sitting at the university and commercialized it in less than a year.”

Toombs said he likely would’ve pushed just as hard to market the bacon aspect of the story as much as he did, even though the company does not see a potential for the product as a bacon replacement.

“I would’ve leveraged all of the positive things I could’ve to get it out,” Toombs said. “Do I think it in any way harmed anybody? No. As a marketing guy, if it gives me a chance to create another trend like this, I do it in a heartbeat.”

 

 

Photo: Josh Hulsey with the C3 dulse developed by Oregon State University.

View original article at: The bacon effect: OSU researchers turn forgotten seaweed into potential billion-dollar enterprise

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