Should Europe be eating more seaweed?

How many superfoods can you name? Online lists cite anywhere from 10 to 30 different foods, including kale, almonds, avocados, sweet potatoes, olive oil, garlic and ginger. Almost all are plants, and none of these come from the sea. Except for seaweed.

Which is one of the reasons why seaweed may be one of the most exciting new foods to join a coveted spot in this unofficial food category (to be clear, the term superfood – generally used to indicate foods of exceptional nutrient density – has no scientific backing and is banned for use in marketing by the European Union).

Why? The arguments for a higher-seaweed diet are numerous, especially according to the young European seaweed farming industry that’s growing up from Ireland to Finland. For the individual person, seaweed promises loads of nutrients, including B12 (often found in meat and otherwise lacking in vegan diets), iodine (essential for regulating the thyroid), dietary fibre (essential for regulating digestion and gut health), and protein. Perhaps most impressively, certain varieties of seaweed are packed with Omega-3 fats, which we normally associate with oily fish like salmon and mackerel – because, in the end, Omega-3s aren’t produced by the fish, but by the seaweed they eat.

But reducing one of the world’s great foods (just ask the Japanese) to mere nutrients – what writer Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism” – is perhaps to miss out on the fact that seaweed has always been a part of traditional diets around the world. Including, until fairly recently, in  Europe.

While seaweed is not a major feature in most current European national cuisines, it was once consumed as a regular part of the diet. Archaeological studies of teeth calculus (dental plaque) on human skeletons from as far back as 8,000 years ago have demonstrated that seaweed, and in more inland regions, lilies and pondweed, were regularly consumed across Europe, well into the mediaeval period.

After that, seaweed, like the now much prized kale, were viewed as a “poor man’s food”, what you’d only eat when there was nothing else to eat. And what you’d feed the animals. Rural peoples have long grazed horses, cows and sheep on seaweed – and that’s where another promising seaweed use lies today.

Studies have shown that supplementing cow feed with seaweed essentially reduces their methane emissions by up to 80% – they’re still burping and farting, they’re just not producing the methane. When ruminant agriculture is a significant contributor of methane emissions, this could be great news for more sustainable food production.

Even if you’re convinced, the European seaweed aquaculture sector is still in its infancy (China and Indonesia alone produce 90% of the world’s seaweed, while Europe contributes less than 1%). For it to grow, seaweed producers need to find space in the crowded maritime commons, sharing sea space with fishing, wind farms, shipping and tourism.

And the industry needs to win over people. First, to the idea that seaweed deserves to be a European pantry staple, just like it is in Asia. And second, to the idea that seaweed farms, if managed correctly, can be a sustainable opportunity for local communities that may offer economic benefits, especially as an alternative industry for traditional fishing communities impacted by the effects of overfishing and global warming.

Like the term superfood itself, the many promises of European seaweed should be taken with a grain of salt – it may just be one among other scenarios in the future of farming. But by sustainably growing a seaweed farming industry from Ireland to Finland, Europe will be following in the footsteps not just of Asia but of its own ancestors, who well knew that seaweed deserves a place at the table.