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October 2015 Issue

Dulse: The New, Sustainable Superfood
Chris Langdon
Aquatic plants growing off the coastline of the U.S. have largely been overlooked as a major food source, partly because of the ease of obtaining sources of protein and essential nutrients from terrestrial plants. McDonald’s introduced “fast food” to America in the 1950s with their promise of: “fast, cheap and consistent food wherever you are.” This idea hit a chord with the American people at the time, and demand for this type of product soared. The effects of fast food on the food supply chain are with us today.

McDonald’s has never wavered from that original promise, but Americans are not as interested in that promise as they once were. The trend in America now is to have food that is fresh, locally sourced, if possible, and sustainably produced. So, as demand shifts in the free market, so shifts the supply chain.

In this case, instead of fast, cheap food, American tastes are skewing to more conscientious consumption. Hence, there is an opportunity for sea vegetables as a viable commercial food source, with environmental advantages.

The Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) at Oregon State University (OSU) is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It is a premier center of aquaculture research on the West Coast of the United States. One of the most important discoveries at HMSC, which had been largely overlooked, was a strain of dulse seaweed (C3) identified by me and my graduate student Carl Demetropoulos, and patented by OSU.

The magic of the C3 dulse strain is its high growth rate and high nutritional value. Under the right conditions, this plant shows production levels and light conversion efficiencies comparable to those of the most productive land plants, such as rice and maize. Up until recently, this strain of dulse had only been used to feed abalone for aquaculture.

Chuck Toombs, a marketing instructor at OSU’s College of Business, was interested in the potential business applications of OSU research and wanted to bring a “real-world” marketing project to his class that was based on technologies or innovations developed at the university. Toombs and I met while he was taking a tour of HMSC, and we discovered a “bridge” between science and business when we began discussing the potential of this strain of dulse that was growing in the lab.

While we were discussing the growth rates and the nutrient values of C3, I offhandedly mentioned that I saw dulse being sold in a local Whole Foods store for $60/lb. dry weight. This was the trigger that sent Toombs into an upward business spiral, and on the two-hour drive back home from Newport, where HMSC is based, he kept thinking about the economics and thought: “Why can’t this be the new kale?”

Kale has a well-earned reputation for being a superfood; a nutritional heavy hitter. It’s popular among health nuts and is highly recommended to all by experts. Dulse one ups kale in flavor—it tastes like bacon, particularly when fried. Dulse also helps clean the marine environment by filtering out excess nutrients and carbon.

The idea of dulse as the next superfood kept nagging at Toombs, and the next day he called to thank me for the tour and asked me the same question he was asking himself: “Why can’t this be the new kale?” To which I replied: You need to talk to Michael Morrissey, the director of the Food Innovation Center, an OSU experiment station in Portland, Oregon.

So, Toombs and Morrissey sat down and talked about the possibilities, and because of the work the Food Innovation Center has done over the years, the conversation quickly expanded to include other food products containing dulse, i.e., salad dressing, chips, crackers, and even beer. Throughout the summer, the third leg of the triangle formed, and now the research component, the product development component, and the business/marketing component were in place.

This is when productivity began to explode. We discovered that, although our interests are really different, if we all “bought in” to a common vision, we could overlook our professional biases and focus on the end game of producing good-tasting food that was good for you. This food would be sourced from a sustainable product that would help usher in the “New Food” era, with a focus on fresh, local and sustainable products.

Very early on in this project, Morrissey realized he needed help and hired Jason Ball, a research chef at the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen, Denmark, co-founded by Rene Redzepi, renowned as one of the best chefs in the world. Ball had experience in cooking with sea vegetables and also had a culinology background—an emerging field of culinary/food sciences that is reshaping restaurant and retail food markets all over the world.

Ball was charged with developing a wide variety of products using the dulse grown at HMSC and handing them off to Toombs to develop the marketing plans. This strategic application of human capital produced an engine of productivity, and the result was an innovation that was taken from concept to launch in less than a year—unheard of in most academic settings.

This project became successful by getting people together who think differently but agree on a common goal. We kept asking questions—mostly: “Why not?” We looked for help in the right places, and we respected each other’s perspectives, which were different but complementary.

What impact the dulse products will have on the future of food is unclear, but we undoubtedly have succeeded in commercializing important, previously obscure research in an impressively short amount of time.

Chris Langdon received degrees from the Universities of Edinburgh and Wales before moving to the U.S. in 1981. He was a post-doc at the University of Delaware before moving to the Hatfield Marine Science Center, Oregon State University in 1986. His research focuses on sustainable aquaculture, and he teaches coastal ecology and resource management and aquaculture.


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Sea Technology is read worldwide in more than 110 countries by management, engineers, scientists and technical personnel working in industry, government and educational research institutions. Readers are involved with oceanographic research, fisheries management, offshore oil and gas exploration and production, undersea defense including antisubmarine warfare, ocean mining and commercial diving.