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Seaweed is on the Menu with Connecticut’s Sugar Kelp Industry

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By Milthon Lujan

Stacey Stearns, UConn Extension, College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources
A team from UConn is using innovative research and community outreach to help make this novel food more accessible for consumers and more profitable for producers.

When you crave something tasty, seaweed may not be the first thing that springs to mind. But UConn researchers and extension educators want to change that.

A team from UConn Extension within the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, and Connecticut Sea Grant are using innovative research and community outreach to help make this novel food more accessible for consumers and more profitable for producers.

Anoushka Concepcion, associate extension educator, and her Sea Grant colleagues wanted to help shellfish farmers find ways to diversify their crops. Along with other UConn researchers, they used their knowledge of the seaweed life cycle to make sugar kelp farming possible. The interest and potential for the new industry caught on after this successful pilot. Through this crop diversification, the producers are not only growing a versatile, environmentally friendly product, they are minimizing their financial risks and improving economic viability.

“Part of our job with Extension is adapting to the emerging needs of our stakeholders,” says Concepcion. “We’re making sure public health officials and farmers have the information they need about what successful seaweed farming looks like in Connecticut.”

Seaweed is the broad name for marine algae; there are thousands of species, including sugar kelp. It’s a marine alga that grows in shallow coastal areas and many recognize sugar kelp’s yellowish brown, long, wavy strands that resemble lasagna noodles. In addition to using sunlight, sugar kelp grows by taking up excess nutrients and carbon dioxide directly from the water, while providing environmental benefits.

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The high nutritional value, including fiber, vitamins, and minerals like iron, calcium, iodine, magnesium, vitamin C and vitamin K make sugar kelp a popular food item in other parts of the world where it’s used in soups and salads. The flavor is sweet, and the texture is thick, so it’s often added to other foods to improve one or both qualities. Sugar kelp also has a vibrant green color once it’s blanched, making it an attractive addition on plates.

While this may sound like a wonder food, there are regulatory requirements to address before a new food product can be mass produced. The Connecticut Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Aquaculture needed science-based information on food safety with sugar kelp and partnered with Sea Grant to secure federal grants in 2013 and 2015 to identify any potential seaweed food safety hazards. Concepcion led this project, and it resulted in the nation’s first publication on seaweed food safety hazards. The publication is specific to Connecticut seaweeds and referenced internationally as a model.

“Our success story is the partnership between the regulators and the industry,” Concepcion says. “It’s really rewarding to help the industry move forward and see the progress. We addressed food safety concerns in Connecticut, and selling safe seaweed is possible because the Department of Agriculture and farmers invested in the process. Most other states still can’t say that, and it’s a benefit to our farmers because the Connecticut Department of Agriculture validates the safety of their product.”

Other states are catching up fast though, thanks to additional work by Concepcion. She received funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create a National Seaweed Hub. Her colleagues from around the country joined the initiative, and the collaboration has resulted in numerous benefits for the industry. Phase two of the project begins in January 2023 with renewed funding.

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Scaling up sugar kelp production in Connecticut is ongoing too. Research and extension outreach are figuring out how to increase the shelf-life of sugar kelp because of Connecticut’s short growing season. A longer shelf-life will provide access to new markets and help farmers extend their season. This may help increase consumer demand and product access.

Concepcion is also working to address the current disconnect between supply and demand.

“While there’s a lot of interest in seaweed farming from producers, we really need to see increased and consistent sales from consumers. Supply and demand don’t match right now,” Concepcion says. “Consumers are interested, but they’re not able to get their hands on it.”

Increased and consistent sales would justify the cost for producers to invest in safe and long-term storage, which would expand access to year-round markets. Expanded markets would also encourage more farmers to participate. Current sugar kelp farmers aren’t producing at their maximum capacity because in addition to farming operations, they’re also responsible for their own distribution and marketing. Most of the kelp produced in Connecticut is sold directly to restaurants in its fresh form. Increasing supply and demand will also introduce distributors to the industry, addressing another barrier in the sugar kelp food system.

Connecticut is now a national leader in sugar kelp farming and industry growth, although Concepcion notes that there is still work to be done. She is trying to inform multiple audiences about the barriers, including preservation and distribution, that exist for the industry.

“The industry is still small and facing some challenges, but we’re going to continue working to get sugar kelp on the menu in more homes and restaurants.”

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