Researchers at Oregon State University think the Pacific Ocean and its coastal tide pools may harbor the next big thing in Oregon food: edible seaweed that is highly nutritious and, when cooked, has a savory flavor that some describe as tasting like bacon.
The challenge is finding ways to incorporate such an unfamiliar ingredient into products that consumers will try and like.
Chris Langdon, a scientist at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, has cultivated and patented a naturally occurring, mutated strain of seaweed commonly called dulse (Palmaria mullis).
It's found along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to mid-California. Langdon has been working with it for about 20 years and, along with fellow researchers, has developed a fast-growing strain of dulse that could be grown in aquaculture as a feed for abalone.
The C-3 dulse, which was named for the tank that it was discovered in, looks like red leaf lettuce — purplish-red in color with a translucent quality, but with a thicker consistency akin to leather — and it’s loaded with nutrition. It’s an excellent source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and it contains up to 16 percent protein by weight, according to Langdon. It also is a good source of iodine and potassium.
The light bulb
Floating in barrels of fresh seawater churned constantly by air bubbling from the bottom of tanks, cultures of the C-3 dulse have been growing at OSU’s Hatfield center in Newport long after their development for abalone feed was concluded.
That is, until an OSU business school marketing professor came by for a tour about two years ago. Charles Toombs had recently started working at OSU after being in private business for many years.
“I was touring different parts of the university to get to know people and what they were doing and looking for projects for my marketing students,” Toombs said.
He was seeking ideas for projects that his students could work on to build marketing plans. Toombs asked Langdon about the seaweed in the bubbling tanks.
“I told him about the dulse and mentioned in passing that dried dulse in our local Whole Foods store is about $60 to $90 a pound (dry weight), which is very expensive, and little light bulbs went off in his mind and he got very interested,” Langdon said.
Toombs' reaction? "I kept thinking about it on the drive back: Why couldn’t this be the next kale?” he said.
He called Langdon to confirm the seaweed's fast growth rate and its price potential.
“I told him I wanted to turn this into a food product for people and he referred me to Michael Morrissey (superintendent and professor of food science technology at the Food Innovation Center)", he said.
The center was created in 1999 to help entrepreneurs create new food products using Northwest ingredients, said Sarah Masoni, product and process development manager.
“What we found is that there are a ton of entrepreneurs all around the state interested in creating these foods that they’re very passionate about and we help them with food science and shelf-life studies and packaging and sensory analysis. We also help them take a home recipe and change it into a formula for commercial manufacturing,” she said.
Toombs took the idea to Morrissey.
"He had summer interns and we kicked off work on the idea,” Toombs said.
This was the first time an OSU-developed sea vegetable had the potential of being commercialized. Besides being highly nutritious, “it’s also one of the few natural resources out there in food production that’s a net carbon user.” Morrissey said.
The dulse absorbs carbon dioxide that is dissolved in the water from the atmosphere and turns it into oxygen and also absorbs nutrients from the water such as nitrates and phosphates, Langdon said.
Edible seaweed is not a new idea. People in China, Japan and Korea have been eating wild seaweed for centuries. There also is a history of dulse being gathered during low tides in Scandinavian countries, Ireland, Nova Scotia and the Northern Atlantic.
"One of the things we found in doing more research on this subject is that there are stories of people eating dulse a thousand years ago," Langdon said.
During the potato famines in Ireland, people used dulse to supplement their diet, Langdon said. Seaweed "provided them with protein and minerals and that’s probably how many of the coastal people survived during those hard times — by adding a little seaweed to those potatoes."
What’s different with this is that it’s being grown in aquaculture settings, Morrissey said.
After summer and with the end of the internships, the center put the project aside when the interns went back to school. But then came an opportunity to revive the project.
Jason Ball, a chef and food scientist, had been doing research focused on seaweed at the Nordic Food Lab in Denmark and was ready to return to the U.S.
“We got an email from Jason in Denmark and he was talking about his work with seaweed and it was just a happy coincidence,” Morrissey said.
They did a Skype interview, brought him over from Denmark and got $65,000 from the Oregon Department of Agriculture through its Specialty Crop Block Grant and dove into the potential for using dulse in foods.
The Food Science Center held idea-generation sessions and came up with 40 ideas on how to incorporate dulse into food. Ball narrowed them to 14 — and prepared 14 dishes.
The researchers noticed that, when cooked, the dulse developed a savory flavor reminiscent of bacon.
Ball said he didn't want to turn consumers off in presenting them with an unfamiliar product like a sea vegetable. He focused on using dulse to make familiar foods: rice crackers, salad dressings, trail mix, sesame seed chips, jerky, instant ramen, sourdough bread, cultured butter, veggie burgers, seafood sausage, beer, caramel corn brittle and ice cream.
“We did a Culinology event, brought in a variety of people and looked at it not just from the characteristic of the food but also for its potential for commercialization, how easy it is to grow and sell,” Morrissey said.
Afterward, Ball took the top five products — popcorn brittle, sesame chips, rice crackers, salad dressing and trail mix — and did a sensory panel test with 120 consumers over two days. He collected feedback on texture, taste and other sensory characteristics; willingness to buy the product; willingness to try seaweed; pricing.
“Usually we look at items that get a score of five or above and most of these were ranking seven or higher,” Morrissey said. “We were pleasantly surprised.”
The team felt confident and recommended that if they wanted to go forward with a product, salad dressing was the one to try.
From idea to reality
Toombs formed a private company, Dulsenergy, and got a non-exclusive license from OSU to grow and use the C-3 strain of dulse in commercialized products. He began working on marketing the salad dressing in conjunction with the Food Innovation Center and New Seasons Market.
“Jason Ball worked with our food team to tweak the recipe a little bit to appeal to our customers,” said Chris Tjersland, partner brand development manager at New Seasons.
Tamari was used instead of soy sauce to make the product gluten free, and olive oil replaced canola oil because there is such a GMO stigma, even with organic canola oil, Tjersland said.
The work resulted in the January launch of a co-branded salad dressing with New Seasons Market using dulse purchased from OSU. The salad dressing, which retails for $4.99 in six-ounce bottles, is available at the 17 New Seasons locations in the Portland area as well as its location in San Jose, California.
The initial order was about 180 cases of product, or 2,160 bottles. It has done well.
“Since we launched the product, it’s been our number one salad dressing. We’ve seen a lot of repeat purchases,” Tjersland said.
New Seasons has placed a follow-up order of approximately the same size. The salad dressing's success prompted the company to sell it at the company's five New Leaf Community Markets in Northern California.
As commercial aquaculture begins by Dulsenergy, “we’re looking at ways of using it in finished product and looking at it in its fresh format. As production expands, we’re hoping to use more of it as it becomes available,” Tjersland said.
The researchers at OSU and the Food Innovation Center also enlisted the help of Portland chef Vitaly Paley to test dulse as a fresh food ingredient. Paley owns and operates Portland Penny Diner, Imperial and Paley’s Place.
“I got a call from Sarah Masoni and Charles Toombs who wanted to drop off some dulse. I wasn’t here but they dropped it off with my chefs at the Imperial and they were so interested in what came in that they called me and said, ‘Chef you have to see this. You have to see this,’ ” Paley said.
He started playing around with the seaweed. “Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect,” Paley said.
He tried deep frying it and “what I got was something interesting, crunchy salty, and savory tasting,” he said. “It sort of hit all of the corners of your palate. It had everything like umami that you look for in a flavor bomb.”
Rarely do chefs get to work with something entirely new that could be made into not just an interesting dish but a nutritious one.
“That’s where I came in," he said, "to develop dishes that it can go into that people will actually try it and enjoy it.”
The deep-fried dulse proved a hit at The Imperial, glistening and ruffly with a dark, greenish-purple color.
Paley remembered serving it the first time to a group of young women at the counter.
“They liked it so much that they ordered another basket,” he said.
Research has kicked into high gear at OSU to come up with the science that will back successful aquaculture of the dulse.
Langdon has received a grant from the Oregon Agriculture Department for $100,000 over two years to develop a way to grow the dulse in a closed system, suitable for aquaculture farms away from sources of seawater.
Langdon has been joined by Josh Hulsey, a graduate assistant, who is growing the seaweed in experiments to determine the minimum salinity levels, water exchange rate and nutrient requirements for commercial cultivation. The long-term goal is to make it feasible for companies to grow the seaweed using artificial seawater, in locations far from the coast such as Central Oregon.
Toombs and Dulsenergy are also at work with the Port of Newport on a four-acre parcel near the Hatfield Marine Science Center. The property used to be a maraschino cherry factory.
Dulsenergy will have to clear regulatory hurdles to get the permits for the company to install intake and outtake pipes to use the seawater from the bay. The process could take from two to five years.
In the meantime, he’s secured an agreement from OSU to use 500,000 gallons of seawater a day from the Hatfield Center.
“We need about a million gallons a day,” Toombs said.
Dulse, an edible seaweed, is being researched and developed by Oregon State University scientists. It grows quickly, is full of protein and some say it tastes like bacon when fried. ANNA REED / Statesman Journal
“This is an untapped and pure industry with unbelievable potential. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. We think that this product is the fastest-growing protein source on earth. Oregon has a tremendous advantage,” Toombs said.
Dulse has tremendous nutritional advantages compared with other foods. Besides its high protein content, it is low in fat and high in fiber and contains nearly all vitamins and minerals — except vitamin B-12 — necessary for human body function, said Morrissey.
The global market for seaweed holds a lot of potential. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the annual global value of seaweed production in 2012 totaled $6.4 billion.
Seaweeds and seaweed-derived components are used in hundreds of products and the list is growing. According to a U.N. report, it’s used in processed human foods such as salad dressings, textile printing, pet foods, cosmetic and healthcare products, fertilizer, animal feed, medical research and coatings for paper and fiberboard.
“The market value of dulse in food products alone is about $100 million a year. That’s just scraping the surface,” Toombs said. “It could be moved into beauty products, nutraceuticals (food containing health-giving additives and having medicinal benefit). The market is huge. People really want this product and it could be a huge boon for Oregon.
“Before we announced the dulse product, there were probably 10,000 people who knew about dulse. Now about 100 million people know about it and associate dulse with OSU. That’s spectacular.”