Seaweed is on the menu with Connecticut’s kelp sugar industry

When you’re craving something tasty, seaweed might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But UConn researchers and extension educators want to change that.

A UConn Extension team within the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resourcesand Connecticut Sea Grant are using innovative research and community outreach activities to help make this new food more accessible to 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 life cycle of algae to make the cultivation of sugar kelp possible. Interest and potential for the new industry arose after this successful pilot project. Through this crop diversification, growers not only grow a versatile and environmentally friendly product, but they minimize their financial risk and improve their economic viability.

“Part of our work with Extension is to adapt 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 a successful Connecticut algae farm looks like.”

Algae is the general name for seaweed; there are thousands of species, including sugar kelp. It is a seaweed that grows in shallow coastal areas and many recognize the long, wavy, yellowish-brown strands of kelp that look like lasagna noodles. In addition to utilizing sunlight, sugar kelp thrives by absorbing excess nutrients and carbon dioxide directly from the water, while providing environmental benefits.

The high nutritional value, including fiber, vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium, iodine, magnesium, vitamin C and vitamin K, makes kelp a popular food in other parts of the world. where it is used in soups and salads. The flavor is mild and the texture is thick, so it is often added to other foods to enhance one or both qualities. Kelp also has a vibrant green color when blanched, making it an attractive addition to plates.

Although it may seem like a miracle food, there are regulatory requirements that must be met before a new food product can be mass produced. The Connecticut Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Aquaculture needed scientific information on the food safety of sweet kelp and partnered with Sea Grant for federal grants in 2013 and 2015 to identify any hazards potential for food safety of algae. Concepcion led this project, which resulted in the country’s first publication on the food safety risks of seaweed. The publication is specific to Connecticut algae and referenced internationally as a model.

“Our success is the partnership between regulators and industry,” says Concepcion. “It’s really rewarding to help the industry move forward and see the progress. We’ve solved food safety issues in Connecticut, and selling safe seaweed is possible because the Department of Agriculture and farmers have 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.

However, other states are catching up quickly, thanks to Concepcion’s extra work. She received funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create a National Seaweed Hub. His colleagues across the country have joined in the initiative, and the collaboration has resulted in many benefits for the industry. The second phase of the project begins in January 2023 with renewed funding.

The intensification of sugar kelp production in Connecticut is also underway. Research and extension seek to increase the shelf life of kelp due to Connecticut’s short growing season. A longer shelf life will provide access to new markets and help farmers extend their season. This can help increase consumer demand and access to products.

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

“Although growers are very interested in growing algae, we really need to see increased and consistent sales from consumers. Supply and demand don’t match right now,” says Concepcion. “Consumers are interested, but they can’t get their hands on it.”

Increased and consistent sales would justify the cost to growers of investing in safe, long-term storage, which would expand market access year-round. Expanded markets would also encourage more farmers to participate. Current sugar kelp producers are not producing at full capacity because, in addition to farming operations, they are also responsible for their own distribution and marketing. Most kelp produced in Connecticut is sold directly to restaurants in its fresh form. The increased supply and demand will also introduce distributors to the industry, addressing another hurdle in the sweet kelp food system.

Connecticut is now a national leader in sugar kelp cultivation and industry growth, though Concepcion notes there is still work to be done. She tries to educate 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 will continue to work to get sweet kelp on the menu in more homes and restaurants.”

The Connecticut Sea Grant College (CTSG) Program is part of the National Sea Grant College Program, administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). CTSG is based at UConn’s Avery Point campus in Groton, and several staff members have academic appointments at the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources, including UConn Extension. For more than 30 years, CTSG has worked to promote the wise use and conservation of coastal and marine resources in Long Island Sound and beyond through research, outreach, and education. This is science at the service of the coast!

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Rachel J. Bradford