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Laurel Sheppard headshot

Can Kelp Help Feed the Planet and Save the Oceans?

A small company is banking that its line of kelp jerky products can scale up, make the seaweed business big business - and save the oceans.

Kelp, an algae seaweed that grows in shallow, nutrient-rich saltwater along coastlines, is showing some potential to become a sizable business.  For example, algin, an emulsifying and bonding agent, is extracted from kelp and used in a wide range of products. Kelp also shows promise as becoming more popular as part of the human diet. This segment accounts for the highest market share of the global seaweed market, according to Allied Market Research, and is expected to grow at nearly 12 percent from 2017 to 2024.

Now, a small company called Akua, founded in 2017, is carving out its own niche in this sector. Its first product is Kelp Jerky, which the company describes as a high-protein, high-fiber snack that’s free of refined sugars, soy, gluten and any allergens. The snack comes in three flavors and can be ordered directly from the company’s website.   

Akua’s products are based on ocean-farmed kelp, specifically sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima), a brown macroalgae. The company sources its kelp from a network of New England-based ocean farms along the northeast seaboard from Maine to Rhode Island.  Spores are typically grown in a nursery on spools, which are then transferred to the kelp farms by boat, where they are then seeded on lines.

The farms are located in “Approved/Open” and “Conditionally Approved” areas, which are classified by water quality and other criteria. These classifications are based on shellfish standards, which are the highest in the aquaculture industry because shellfish are more susceptible to pollutants.

After harvesting, the kelp is then processed in Portland, Maine. All kelp is tested for bacteria by a third party food safety company at the processor and then tested again by a third party food safety lab at AKUA’s manufacturer, who certifies it as food safe. In addition, apple cider vinegar, which regulates the products’ pH levels, is added to every batch of the kelp snack.

Akua’s food safety process is approved by a licensed Connecticut-based food lab, whose general safety protocols are followed for dehydrated vegetable jerky. The kelp is repeatedly tested for heavy metals and the company insists the results are food-safe. 

The company considers kelp one of the most sustainable food sources on the planet. Akua says the environmental and economic benefits of kelp include:

  • Sequesters carbon and nitrogen five times more effectively than its land-based plant counterparts
  • Requires no fresh water, dry land, fertilizer, or feed to grow
  • Regenerative: grows up to 1.5 feet a day, ultimately reaching heights of 100 feet or more

Considered by some to be a superfood, kelp, including Akua’s product, is rich in potassium, calcium, Vitamin D and Vitamin C.

The snack also makes to claim to be vegan, non-GMO and keto-friendly. Each bag has 10 grams of plant-based protein and 10 grams of fiber, while being low in calories with a touch of all-natural maple sugar.

Despite all this nutritional value, does this kelp jerky snack really taste good? According to Sir Richard Branson’s testimonial, the answer is a resounding yes: “It’s incredibly delicious. Well done."

The larger question, however, is whether kelp and other species of seaweed can become more popular, scale up and have a role in changing our eating habits and help save the oceans. The evidence suggests kelp cultivation, including what is often occurring in underwater “3-D farms” or some aquaculture installations, can help improve our oceans’ health. Supporters of the nascent kelp sector have suggested that this underwater crop could generate new revenue streams for workers in states such as Maine.

But as a NPR profile from earlier this week points out, it may take a while for kelp to become popular and appear in more restaurants and dinner plates at home. There are challenges with logistics, storage – and consumer preferences. But if kelp can take off, there will be winners all around, including a boost of biodiversity in our oceans.

Image credits: Akua/Facebook

Laurel Sheppard headshot

Laurel has extensive experience writing about energy efficiency, clean energy, sustainability and green building. She was formerly Senior Energy Content Specialist for a digital marketing firm serving the utilities industry where she generated story ideas and wrote content for several e-newsletters. Laurel is also a member of the Ohio chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council and participates on several committees for the Central Ohio region. 

Read more stories by Laurel Sheppard