Why Seaweed Isn’t Just for Sushi Anymore

Sea of Change is bringing sustainably harvested kelp to your snack drawer—in flavors you’ll want to eat.

(Photo: Flip Nickilin/Getty Images)

Jan 23, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Heather Rogers has written for ProPublica, The New York Times Magazine, and Mother Jones. Her most recent book, Green Gone Wrong, explores the contradictions of green consumerism. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

On a warm summer day in 2012, Cole Meeker had an epiphany: Most Americans are missing out on a nutrient-rich food that requires no fertilizers, pesticides, or irrigation to harvest. The realization came while he was tagging along with his wife, who was taking a class about herbs and edible plants on a beach in Sonoma, California. As he looked out at the rocky shore covered in shiny green and black strands of kelp, a light bulb went on. Meeker asked the plant biologist leading the class how many varieties were edible. She responded that they all were. An aha moment ensued, and Meeker’s business idea was born—he would harvest an abundance of seaweed and bring it to America’s kitchens.

Though seaweed is a foundational food source for marine life, it’s not a big part of the American food pyramid. Meeker set out to change that. Within months of that summer day, he learned how to harvest a range of seaweed from the frigid Pacific Ocean and launched Sea of Change Trading Company with the help of several friends, including Courtney Smith, who became co-owner last year. The company makes snacks from sea vegetables—its best seller is called Sea Bakin and has a crisp, salty, meaty taste similar to bacon—and also sells unprocessed dried wild seaweed online, at local grocery stores, and at Whole Foods.

Sea of Change founder Cole Meeker. (Photo: Anastasia Emmons)

Sea of Change’s mission is to turn ocean plants into food that people like, whether they already love seaweed or have reservations.

TakePart recently talked to Meeker about what it means to sustainably harvest kelp, how fast the plants grow (certain varietals grow two feet a day), and why we should all learn to respect the ocean.

TakePart: First of all, why should we eat seaweed? Does it even taste good?

Cole Meeker: It’s extremely healthful. A sea plant spends its life growing in the most complete nutrient-rich mineral bath—the ocean. It has iodine, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, potassium, and so many more minerals.

Before I started doing this I worked for a while as a sushi chef in Ashland, Oregon, where I would take sea vegetables out of a tub, or sheets of nori out of a plastic bag. I had no idea what they were like in the wild. People think there are only a few types of seaweed that are edible, but the ocean is a forest of food.

And the taste? I think it tastes good. But it’s true, you’ve got to throw magic into it. To make Sea Bakin, we baste the nori with sesame seeds and coconut butter; then we add spices and a little apple cider vinegar at the right moment to give it some tang.

With seaweed you can either mask the flavor or bring it out. If you want the nutrition but not the taste, you can add it to spicy foods like chili or salsa. If you want the ocean flavor, you can add it to things like chowder. Different types of seaweed have different flavors—bullwhip kelp has a strong taste, but nori is very delicate.

TakePart: What makes seaweed environmentally sound?

Meeker: In terms of the environmental impact, eating seaweed makes so much sense. It’s fast growing—the variety called giant kelp can grow two feet a day. It’s wild, it doesn’t need anything—no nutrients, no water—it grows on its own. It’s like permaculture in the ocean.

TakePart: How exactly do you harvest seaweed?

Meeker: You can only harvest in the spring and summer. You do it in rhythm with the tides, and you have to go at low tide. That might be early in the morning, just before [dawn], or the sun may already be up. You get out there, it’s really cold, and you throw on your wet suit. Every time I’m like, “Why am I doing this?”, but then you fall in the water a couple times and get wet and taste the salt. The ocean is like another planet, and these plants are like alien creatures—they’re so unusual and beautiful. Under the water, the different types of seaweed unfold, and some varieties, like bullwhip and giant kelp, grow to almost 100 feet—sometimes taller!

The way we harvest is important. We harvest really specific seaweed—nori, sea palm, wakame, Alaria. And different kinds of kelp—kombu and bullwhip. We have a few key spots we go to, and we selectively harvest. We take only what we’re confident we will sell and use and trim it so we’re not taking the whole plant.

Because it’s wild harvesting, to know the effects of what we do on the plants themselves we have to keep track of how much we gather and where we get it. That lets us go back and see what our regrowth rates are. I can go back to where we harvested sea palm last year and see how much it’s grown. Then I know we can take a couple hundred pounds of sea palm, and it can regenerate.

After we bring it in…we wash it and lay it in the sun on screens and let it dry, or for some of it, it dries better hanging. From there you can cook with it.

(Photo: Anastasia Emmons)

TakePart: Harvesting seaweed isn’t exactly common knowledge. How did you learn?

Meeker: I’ve been networking, finding people who’ve been doing it in Northern California for a long time. A local woman—she’s been wild harvesting for 35 years—she saw me at the market when I first started Sea of Change and adopted me. She’s shown me where I can harvest, even new places, and taught me different drying methods. There are other locals, too, who are really open with what they know. This is a skill that’s really being passed down from person to person.

TakePart: Why should we be concerned with the health of the oceans?

Meeker: We need to change the way we eat and the way we use the oceans. And food is the interface of our bodies with the earth. The ocean is wild—and it’s shared. The way we connect with our food is so essential to everything.

When you see the ocean as a food source you’re more likely to keep it healthy and clean. Plastic in the ocean is a huge problem. Eating sea vegetables might make you think, “Maybe my plastic-microbead cosmetics aren’t so good.”

TakePart: What’s next for you?

Meeker: We’re planning on experimenting with farmed kelp, so we’re working on leasing a kelp bed out in the ocean. You go out in a boat and sustainably harvest, then go back out and monitor the kelp bed to see what’s going on and make sure you’re not taking too much.

I’m not interested in ruling the seaweed world; I want to make some positive change to how people eat. I want to bring good, healthy food forth with my friends. Who knows how the business will go? Maybe we’ll have a live kitchen on the water serving seaweed we’ve just harvested.