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The Local Food Report
As we re-imagine our relationships to what we eat, Local Food Report creator Elspeth Hay takes us to the heart of the local food movement to talk with growers, harvesters, processors, cooks, policy makers and visionaries

The Promise of Sugar Kelp

Courtesy Scott Lindell
Sugar kelp grown in Maine, also known as "skinny kelp"

For years, Scott Lindell has been interested in a big idea, food from the ocean that could feed the masses. 

He started with farmed striped bass. Then he moved on to shellfish. These days, he’s researching seaweed.

“So sugar kelp is a type of kelp, a brown seaweed, 6 or 8 feet long, the blade is the majority of that but there’s a small what looks a stem, called the stype and then a holdfast, that holds the kelp to the rocks typically.”

Humans have eaten kelp for a long time. In Japan, in 703 AD, seaweed was such an important part of the national diet that the Emperor changed the law to allow people could pay their taxes with it. Kelp still a big part of the some Asian countries’ diets. But in the United States, it’s relatively new.

“The type of sugar kelp they grow in Asia has been farmed for almost 60 years and they have already developed a very sophisticated selective breeding program that’s boosted their yields five or ten fold.”

Credit courtesy Scott Lindell

Scott wants to do that here. He thinks kelp could be a bigger part of the way we feed ourselves—he imagines kelp pastas or kelp snack chips—and together with a number of academic, business, and non-profit groups, he’s teamed up to develop strains and breeds of sugar kelp that are sweeter than wild kelp and with better yields. He says this is possible in part because of a quirk in the life cycle of kelp plants.

“Kelp are really curious in the plant world. Kelp, brown kelps have two stages, two generations, an alternate generation that’s microscopic, very unlike the macroscopic kelp that you see washed up on the shore, that’s just a few cells long, this alternative stage. Now that gives us, the plant breeders, or the kelp breeders, an advantage because we can hold those little microscopic stages in our lab almost perpetually they just need a little bit of light and a little bit of nutrients and then whenever we want to we can pop them out of the cold storage and cross them and produce a new breed of kelp.”

In his lab, Scott and his collaborators have thousands of these individual microscopic kelps. They cross them, and then test the next generation’s nutritional content, looking for a new strain that’s really sweet.

“Flavor is basically something we can measure in terms of sugar content. But the fresh kelp has a very mild, slightly sweet, slightly nutty flavor. It really lends itself to whatever you add to it. It’s almost like the tofu of the sea except it’s got that crunchy and slightly salty flavor to it.”

The season for fresh kelp is short—it’s harvested in the spring, and only available for a few weeks. But preserved, it has all kinds of possibilities. Because it’s so mild, Scott thinks that eventually, sugar kelp could be used in processed foods the way we use corn and soy today.

“Kelp is so much more nutritious in terms of particularly the micronutrients that it has. So I don’t think you’re gonna see fresh kelp on the menu, but you may see kelp flour integrated into pasta noodles or integrated into snack chips. There’s a wonderful group in Maine that’s creating salsas and kimchi. So I think we’re going to see more and more innovation in integrating sugar kelp into products that we as Americans are more and more familiar with.”

Right now Scott says kelp farming is growing faster in some regions than others—in our area, there are farmers growing sugar kelp successfully off Martha’s Vineyard and off of Chatham and Harwich in Nantucket Sound. And more farmers get interested in sugar kelp farming, Scott Lindell says the next challenge is to work with chefs on developing recipes and with processors to get it into the general food system.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.