This bacon-flavored seaweed could be the new eco-friendly superfood

bacon-flavored dulse
© Oregon State University, Photo by Stephen Ward

It's not the 'chicken of the sea,' but perhaps there's a place for the 'bacon of the ocean' in sustainable seafood.

On the internet, it doesn't take long to come across bacon-related news, and if aliens were to listen in on our broadband networks, they might think get the impression that fried pork belly was the holy grail of food here on Earth. But most bacon, as popular as it is, isn't exactly a benign product, environmentally speaking, and the large-scale "factory" farms that produce it are implicated in both air and water pollution, and depending on who you talk to, bacon consumption could also be linked to cancer.

So what's a bacon-loving treehugger to do? There are already some pretty good veggie-based bacon substitutes on the market to choose from, but one potential bacon-like future food might come from the sea, if the work of Oregon State University researchers eventually reaches commercial scale.

A newly-patented strain of dulse, a red algae (commonly referred to as a kind of seaweed) that grows primarily on the northern coasts of both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, is said to grow "extraordinarily quickly" and has a nutritional profile that could be twice as potent as kale, the leafy green so often touted as being a superfood. According to OSU, this new strain of dulse "is an excellent source of minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants," contains up to 16% protein (dry weight), and (wait for it) tastes like bacon when cooked.

Dulse might be a familiar ingredient to some (my kids love eating it sprinkled on salads), but it's not really a mass-market food in the US yet, perhaps in part because there aren't any commercial dulse 'farms' here. However, the work of researcher Chris Langdon and his colleagues at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center may change that. If they can boast of it tasting like bacon, while also touting its eco-friendly production, bacon-flavored seaweed just might be the new kale.

"In Europe, they add the powder to smoothies, or add flakes onto food. There hasn’t been a lot of interest in using it in a fresh form. But this stuff is pretty amazing. When you fry it, which I have done, it tastes like bacon, not seaweed. And it’s a pretty strong bacon flavor.” - Chris Langdon

According to the announcement from OSU (titled appropriately for the internet, "OSU researchers discover the unicorn"), the team working on the new dulse variety received a grant from the Oregon Department of Agriculture to examine the seaweed as a specialty crop, but no commercial-scale bacon-flavored dulse farms are in the works yet. However, some MBA students studying under Chuck Toombs, in OSU's College of Business, are reportedly exploring the potential for this dulse variety as a new aquaculture business, as well as preparing a marketing plan for a new line of specialty foods based on it.

"Theoretically, you could create an industry in eastern Oregon almost as easily as you could along the coast with a bit of supplementation. You just need a modest amount of seawater and some sunshine." - Langdon

For more on this topic, Think Progress talks to a long-time seaweed farmer, who also happens to be a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, about the potential for seaweed farming as environmental boon in ocean regions that are suffering from nutrient imbalances.

Tags: Diet | Oceans

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