Editor's Note: The patenting of living organisms has a long and turbulent history. This article does not delve into the subject; however, it is an important issue in science, one that we all must clearly understand and hold a firm position on. It is also an issue that happens to be the foundation upon which this article is based. With this in mind, please scroll to the bottom of the article for a host of links to more information regarding this subject.
Did you know you can patent marine algae? At Oregon State University, researchers did just that. They discovered a new strain of a succulent red marine algae. It grows super quick and is incredibly healthy, due to its high levels of protein (up to 16% in dry weight), minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants.
Popeye would love to trade his spinach for this stuff. Especially since, when fried, it also tastes like bacon. That alone would have anyone running to the patent office.
Okay, so it's not actually called bacon-seaweed. The proper name for the marine algae is dulse (Palmaria mollis).
After studying the dulse that grows wildly along the Pacific and Atlantic coast, researcher Chris Langdon and his colleagues at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center created their own strain. This wasn't something that Langdon's team grew overnight—this project has been 15 years in the making.
The team's goal wasn't immediately to market this seaweed for human consumption. It kind of looks like raw bacon, but it was developed as a "super-food" for abalone (sea snails). High quality abalone, says Langdon, "is treasured, especially in Asia." Langdon and his team were able to grow the dulse-fed abalone at a faster rate than previously recorded.
Dulse may have twice the nutritional value of kale, but does that mean we should be eating it instead? A healthy seaweed, even if it does taste like bacon, doesn't sound overly appetizing. This mentality was one of the challenges that Chuck Toombs took on when he partnered with Langdon.
Langdon collaborated with Toombs from OSU's College of Business to discuss the potential of marketing dulse. Toombs saw the bubbling vats of seawater where the dulse grew outside of Langdon's office and was intrigued. He was searching for a topic that would grab his marketing students. This strain of dulse could be farmed, which meant "the potential for a new industry on the Oregon coast," according to Toombs.
Perhaps, if the right chef got their hands on the plant, they could develop a culinary masterpiece. The newly-formed team even received a grant from the Oregon Department of Agriculture to explore dulse as a "specialty crop." This was a big deal; this was the first time a seaweed had made the list.
Dulse for Dinner
Seaweed has been used for centuries in Ireland, Iceland, and Scandinavia; its versatility might surprise you. From sushi to ice cream, seaweed can be found on the ingredient list of many common products. Now that seaweed was on the specialty crop list, the team could apply for a specialty crop grant.
With their grant, the team was able to recruit Jason Ball at OSU's Food Innovation Center in Portland. Dulse was distributed to the chefs, including Ball, to be used as a main ingredient in any dish they could imagine. Soon, Langdon and Toombs were reviewing recipes such as dulse-based rice crackers, salad dressings, trail mix, sesame seed chips, and smoked dulse popcorn peanut brittle. Ball even tested out dulse burgers and beer (sure to be favorites of any swashbuckling pirate on the coast).
Dulse's flavor and consistency varies by cooking method and strain. Ball describes fresh, raw dulse as being tender and slightly salty. When it's pan fried the seaweed takes on a smoky flavor, and, according to Ball, “dulse can be light and crispy with a savory saltiness, like bacon.”
The Future of Dulse
Since the project began, several chefs in the Portland area are testing dulse in their dishes. Although the raw and cooked forms have potential, seafood economists have not begun a full analysis on whether a large-scale commercial operation would be feasible, at least, of the strain Langdon has created.
Dulse is pretty pricey. That's because most of the dulse used for nutritional supplements and cooking is from Europe. So even though it could reasonably be a bacon substitute, the cost difference is huge. The average cost of a pound of bacon is about $6.00. In comparison, if you wanted a pound of dried dulse, it would be $90.00. Right now, the dried form is most popular. It's used currently as a cooking ingredient and a nutritional supplement.
Dulse is available in other forms. It's been incredibly popular in Europe over the years. People add the powdered version to their smoothies. Mostly, though, Europeans take advantage of the dried versions of dulse rather than using its raw form, that's how Langdon and his culinary team differ.
Saving the Seas
Having a delicious and healthy alternative to bacon is a great, but even better, dulse farming could have a positive impact on the ocean's ecosystem. Charlie Yarish, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, has been a seaweed farmer for decades. He doesn't deal in dulse, but believes that farming dulse on a larger scale would be good for the environment.
Seaweed is able to extract nutrients from aquatic ecosystems; it even thrives in polluted ones. Yarish makes seaweed faming sound very low maintenance, “you’re dealing with a crop that doesn’t require fresh water, it does not require arable land.”
Seaweed is also able to help reverse an imbalance of nutrients where its growing. Nitrogen, for example, stimulates the growth of oxygen depleting life such as algal blooms. Dulse farming can help balance this out, leading to less coastal dead zones. Seaweed takes the nitrogen and converts it to living tissue (AKA delicious bacon-flavored seaweed). Seaweed can even thrive in water that is rich in carbon dioxide, a growing fear as pollution increases. Algae, says Yarish, is able to lower the pH of the water through the extraction process. This would both help lead to a cleaner ecosystem, and more healthy food for a growing population.