[USA] Sea vegetables are gaining popularity among consumers. The growing interest in natural and organic foods, especially superfoods has lead to an increasing awareness of health benefits. Social media, press, and cookbooks are now including recipes and information on sea vegetables which are perceived as unique among vegetables despite seaweeds being one of the oldest foods worldwide in coastal communities. Some restaurants, although having a wide variety of seafood, for example, somewhere like these pier 39 restaurants, may not have yet gotten on board with the sea vegetables. However, changes are coming and the trend is becoming more popular.
This popularity has not only spread to consumers, but also to the food service and fishing industries as harvesting or growing sea vegetables is a way to diversify and expand enterprises. “Many chefs are looking for a new niche as consumers’ interest in local and artisanal cuisine expands,” explains Seraphina Erhart, general manager of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables. “Fishermen are searching for methods to put their experience with the ocean and boats to work year round. As aquaculture or the farming of seaweeds becomes a commercial reality in North America, they may be able to diversify with seaweed.”
Although seaweed is honoured in Eastern nations like China, Japan, and Korea, the importance of seaweed in North America is still being discovered. “People need to consume seaweed to be healthy and survive in the modern era,” states Barbara Stephens-Lewallen who owns the Mendocino Sea Vegetable Company along with her husband, John.
Sea vegetables offer a broad spectrum of minerals and even contain trace elements that are not often found in land plants as more minerals are leaving the soil and going to the oceans, where they are absorbed by sea vegetables. They are filled with natural minerals similar to those already present in human bodies. “Sea vegetables carry important minerals necessary for us to function,” explains Barbara, “Like calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, and iodine.”
The Mendocino Sea Vegetable Company wildcrafts nine different varieties. John Stephens-Lewallen began the harvesting of many of these species in 1980 and developed Japanese names for multiple varieties for better market integration. “There are three different colours available,” explains John, “brown seaweed like Kombu and Fucus are highest in iodine levels, sea lettuce and other green seaweeds are more delicate, and red such as Dulse and Nori are high in protein.”
Wildcrafting involves visiting the sites in which wild seaweed grows and harvesting sustainably so the plants can healthily regenerate. “Our seaweed is grown natural and wild by nature,” explains Barbara, “They grow in the same locations every season, and are grown by the ocean, wind, sun, and rain.”
Each sea vegetable has a unique growing and replenishing method. Maine Coast Sea Vegetables only sells Certified Organic sea vegetables applying strict methods to the cultivation. Only a small portion of each species bed is harvested to ensure there is copious reproductive material for continual growth. “This care has allowed us to harvest from the same beds year after year, and forty-three years later, it seems we’re doing a very good job!”
Due to the natural growing methods, protecting and monitoring the oceans’ pollution is important to stop pollution from spreading to the seaweed.
The Organic Certification also signifies that Maine Cost Sea Vegetables harvest sustainably from clean waters. All parties handling the produce do so with great care, from the harvester to the consumer. “Each season we independently sample test for radiation, pesticides, herbicides, petroleum residues, PCB’s, heavy metals and microbiological contaminants. These tests are always available to the public on our website.”
Seaweed has recently gained popularity among higher-class chefs adding to the recent trend. For culinary usage, sea vegetables can be purchased in a variety of different forms ranging from whole plants to powder. While some can be eaten right out of packaging, like Dulse, others, like Laver, are better roasted first. Kelp offers a rich umami flavour, and is perfect for use in soup stock, and flaked or powdered as a herb or condiment for a meal. Kombu has been used as a Japanese soup stock for centuries, while Sea Palm is used in Filo Dough Strudels, soups and other culinary experiments. Snacking is also an option as sea vegetables can be added to a smoothie, or dessert. Carrageenan, an extract gel from Irish Moss, a red seaweed has been used to thicken everyday products like ice cream and toothpaste for years.
Sea vegetables rise in popularity and its label as a superfood has it conditioned for the future. In the North Atlantic region, where Maine Coast Sea Vegetables is located, aquacultured sea vegetables ensure the safety and continuation of business. “We are reaching the limits of what the wild plants can sustainably offer us but the demand, popularity, and general awareness continue to expand,” states Erhart. “Being able to grow our native seaweeds will allow us to meet increasing demand without overtaxing the wild plants, create new products, and hopefully connect more people with sea vegetables. We see more people adding them to their diets on a regular basis.”
Seaweed wildcrafters and harvesters are enthusiastic about the future of seaweed and other sea vegetables. “Seaweed will outlive and outsell every other vegetable on the market,” explains John, “It’s a huge source of natural nutrition and its full potential hasn’t even been realized yet. There needs to be an organized effort between the government and scientists to inform consumers of all of the benefits sea vegetables offer.”
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