TASTE

How Seaweed Became A Mainstream Snack In America

08/04/2014 07:00 am 07:00:36
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When you think of the beach, seaweed is not necessarily what you want to envision. We're guessing you'd rather picture clear water, white sand and no seaweed in sight. Seaweed isn't so bad, however. In fact, it's rich in nutrients and can actually be quite delicious. You may not want to swim in it, but you sure as hell want to eat it.

A few years ago, seaweed in the culinary sense would have meant sushi to most people in the United States. You might have thought of seaweed salad or perhaps even kombu, which is used to make the Japanese broth called dashi. You probably would not have thought about snacks sold in local grocery stores all over America. Seafoods snacks, however -- those flat sheets of roasted seaweed -- have soared in popularity in recent years.

A graph from Google Trends shows a spike in searches for the term "seaweed snack" in 2011, where before, the term practically didn't exist -- at least according to Google.

What's behind this exponential growth? For one, seaweed is really good for you. It's high in soluble and insoluble fiber, and also high in protein. According to BBC News, depending on the variety of seaweed, protein could make up between seven to 35 percent of the plant's dry weight. And "some species like nori (Porphyra spp) contain as much as 47 percent protein."

While seaweed does contain vitamins, such as Vitamin A and C, HuffPost Healthy Living explains that the portion size of seaweed typically isn't enough to make it an important source of these vitamins. The more important health benefit seaweed provides, however, is iodine. Iodine is necessary for a healthy thyroid, which regulates hormones. An unhealthy one can lead to all sorts of symptoms, from fatigue to depression to trouble with weight management. According to HuffPost Healthy Living, not many other foods contain iodine, which means seaweed offers a unique benefit unmatched by most other foods.

As Americans become increasingly health conscious, nutritionally rich foods like seaweed are getting more attention. Food companies and marketers are paying attention to consumer demands and pushing healthy food products, fueling and reinforcing trends. (Look no further than the recent Greek Yogurt craze and pervasive use of the word "superfood," which is nothing more than a marketing term that has simply exploded in recent years. Seaweed, of course, has been deemed a superfood by the powers that be.)

In addition to making healthier food choices, Americans are also snacking more now than ever. A lot more. According to the Wall Street Journal, 56 percent of Americans snacked three or more times a day in 2010, while only 10 percent did in 1970. The healthy snack market, then, would be the perfect place for a food producer to focus its attention.

Enter dried, packaged, seaweed crisps, otherwise known as seaweed snacks. A common snack in Japanese and Korean cuisine, these things hit big in the U.S. around 2011. Mark Bittman wrote about nori chips and published a recipe in The New York Times in 2009, and shortly thereafter Trader Joe's started selling Roasted Seaweed Snacks. Other big players include SeaSnax, Annie Chun's and gimMe Health Foods.

The last in this list, gimMe Health Foods, is the latest venture from Annie Chun, who together with her husband founded Annie Chun's All Natural Asian Cuisine. In 2009, the couple successfully sold Annie Chun's, their first company, which was earning $15 million in annual sales, to South Korean CJ Foods. In 2013, Chun and her family started gimMe Health Foods to focus exclusively on dried seaweed snacks. Today both Annie Chun brand and gimMe Health Foods brand seaweed snacks are being sold at Walmart -- perhaps the ultimate symbol that something has gone mainstream.

Seaweed's popularity in the U.S. continues to grow. Now it's even entering the beer market. Belfast, Maine-based Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. just released a seaweed-infused craft beer this month, and with the ever-increasing craft beer market, we can only assume more breweries will follow.

Are you on board the seaweed train? If you want to try making your own, check out NPR and The Kitchn for some good recipes, and let us know if you have any favorite ways to eat seaweed.

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