For two food-filled days, visitors to Ballymaloe Food Festival in Co. Cork were given a taste of delicious Irish produce.

Alongside samples of honey, chocolate, whiskey and cider were more unusual products: chunks of cheese shot through with flakes of seaweed, and scoops of surprisingly tasty ice cream flavoured with the salty tang of dulse, the deep red seaweed with long leathery fronds often avoided by beachcombers on Scottish shorelines.

There was kimchi that fused vibrant Korean flavours with the crisp crunch of local seaweed, and vegan chorizo-style sausages, black puddings and ‘sea burgers’ conjured up from long, thin and wispy Irish Atlantic Wakame seaweed.

Bladder wrack seaweed, commonly found on Scottish shores, is among the most nutritious seaweeds Bladder wrack seaweed, commonly found on Scottish shores, is among the most nutritious seaweeds (Image: Contribute: Seaweed Enterprises)

And there were more familiar products: seaweed-based toiletries such as bath salts, soaps and oils, even a bag of dried seaweed in a linen bag for popping in the bath – a snip at €25.

As Rhianna Rees of the Scottish Seaweed Industry Association (SSIA) browsed the stalls, Scotland’s handful of seaweed farmers were in the midst of their annual harvest.

For a brief window in late Spring, just as the water temperature rises when the seaweed is tender and sweet, they were hauling in long lines of rope to see what months of waiting might yield.

Once a staple of Scottish diets, seaweed – nutrient-rich, high protein-low calorie and packed with fibre, iodine and polyphenols linked to lowering the risk of heart disease – is said to be on the cusp of returning to our tables, as part of our daily routines and even in our healthcare.

In Ireland, however, innovative seaweed products are already hitting the dining table.

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“What struck me the most was the sheer variety of seaweed products that were showcased, and the inventive ways they were incorporated,” the SSIA Business Development Manager later reflected in her online blog.

“The innovative uses of seaweed I encountered in Cork are a glimpse into the future of this incredible industry. Whether it's in our food, health products, or sustainable practices, seaweed clearly holds immense promise."

It’s not just Irish foodies sampling new uses for seaweed. In Norway, Europe’s largest seaweed producer, much of the 11 tonnes of hand-picked seaweed harvested by Lofoten Seaweed in the far north heads to some of Europe’s top restaurants.

Among its products are dark chocolate laced with sugar kelp, milky white chocolate flaked with dulse, seaweed tagliatelle and Algae Pearls, plant-based caviar created using Atlantic wakame.

Red dulse collected by Fife-based House of SeaweedRed dulse collected by Fife-based House of Seaweed (Image: Contributed: Seaweed Enterprises)

At Sjy Seaweed, seaweed with porcini mushrooms makes crunchy snacks, and Flyt produces Norwegian Cultivated Sugar Kelp flakes and kombu to flavour sauces, salads and soups.

In the Netherlands, The Seaweed Company has established seaweed farms at home and in Ireland, Morocco and India. Its key product is SeaMeat, a seaweed blend that can be used to bulk up meat helping reduce its environmental impact.

With Scotland now marking ten years since the Scottish Association for Marine Science launched the country’s first seaweed farm of its kind off the Isle of Kerrera - and no sign yet of Scottish seaweed burgers – are we at risk of being left behind?

“Ten years ago, the sector didn’t have any farms,” says Rhianna. “Now we have got 13 licences granted for seaweed farms and there are various wild harvesters collecting seaweed for food to fertiliser.

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“But it is a bit like ‘two steps forward, one step back’ as we try to find out where the markets are, what species of seaweed people need and want.

“We know so little about seaweed,” she adds. “We have 650 species around Scotland and we’re only commercially using about ten. We don’t necessarily know the composition of species and what is best for what uses.

“It’s fact finding at the moment as much as anything.”

Of course, some Scottish producers are using seaweed to give food and drink a novel twist.  

At Isle of Harris Distillery, naturalist and diver Lewis Mackenzie – dubbed The Kelp Man – free-dives during a two-hour window on either side of low spring tides to collect sugar kelp used to bring a subtle complexity to its gin.

Wick-based Shore turns nutrient rich seaweed into crispy snacks and is set to take its product mainstream, into Asda stores.

And at Isle of Mull Seaweed, kelp harvested on the fringes of an island where a buoyant seaweed industry once produced glass and soap, becomes seaweed chutney and seaweed hot sauce.

But developing more products takes time, she adds, and needs consumers open to trying new tastes.

“Farming seaweed isn’t just putting seeds in water. It’s building a marine structure to withstand the sweeps, its people’s time, vessels, making sure it’s done right, not introducing non-native species and specialist drying facilities.

“In Ireland, seaweed never really stopped being part of the diet and using it in food seems to be a larger part of the culture.

(Image: Contributed: Seaweed Enterprises/House of Seaweed)

“Here, it’s almost like we are trying to sneak it into our diets and wondering how we can get people eating it without knowing.

“We should be selling fresh seaweed straight off the boat but there’s not the demand. Michelin star restaurants in London might be interested but restaurants here aren’t.”

She likens seaweed today to how kale was once viewed: packed with nutritional benefits, it was shunned until suddenly branded as the latest superfood. “We need the kale people,” she adds.

Quirky seaweed foods are just part of a fledgling sector likened to the salmon farming industry of the late 1970s.

It features in Stornoway-based Ishga’s skincare and spa products, and Yorkshire-based producers of Crème du Loch moisturisers use kelp from Scottish waters.

While research is examining how seaweed might be effective in the treatment of cancer, HIV and as an anti-inflammatory.

The use of seaweed in the production of bioplastics is another area, while at Atlantic Mariculture fermented Liquid Kelp has been found to be an effective natural alternative to chemical fertiliser.

Its seaweed farm in Loch Sunart, one of Scotland’s largest commercially farmed sites, produces more than 100 tonnes of kelp each season. A second is planned for the Ardnamurchan peninsula next year, with capacity for a further 200 tonnes, while the firm has partnerships with other seaweed harvesters.

“Seaweed has a huge role to play in displacement of synthetic products, be it fertilisers or plastics,” says the firm’s David Stewart Howitt, who likens its Liquid Kelp to “a gut treatment for soil”.

“If you add nitrogen to soil, you switch off the soil’s natural ability to generate nitrogen. We are trying to switch the soil back on.

“We know it works,” he adds, “and we are now trying to find out the best applications for it, the best concentration and at what time of year.”

Trials are underway with farmers including berry growers in Angus and Perthshire: kelp thickens the cells walls in young plants and boosts resistance to mildew.

He adds: “The biggest challenge for the sector is scale and mechanisation. At the moment, harvesting seaweed is like trying to harvest a field without a combine harvester.”

Atlantic Mariculture is developing a “gamechanger” solution which would revolutionise how west coast seaweed is harvested.

But he worries that Scotland’s seaweed sector is at risk of lagging behind some rivals.

“The amount of public money that Norway is ploughing into the development of the sector compared to what is happening here is extraordinary.

“We hear lots of encouraging words from governments, but this is not a priority. Yet it could be a really important sector for the rural and coastal community.

“Are we at risk of lagging behind others? 100%.

“This is a critical time and we can’t afford to lose momentum and not feed the sector.”

A 2022 Scottish Government report predicted the seaweed sector, currently valued at £510,000 per year employing around 60 people, could be worth £21.1million by 2040 should it continue to grow at its current rate.

Should it meet predicted demand from horticulture and animal feed producers, biotechnology innovations and consumers embracing seaweed in food and health products, turnover could soar to £71.2 million per year.

Pete Higgins is CEO of Fife-based Seaweed Enterprises which wild harvests seaweed across 32km of East Neuk coastline and uses its mechanical dryer equipment to create a range of dried seaweed leaves, powders and flakes that can be added to dishes to enhance flavours.

The business counts Michelin star restaurants among its customers and is developing a seaweed alternative to salt which has been used in butter and pizza dough.

It also works with firms which use its dried seaweed to create alternatives to plastic.


(Image: Contributed: Seaweed Enterprises/House of Seaweed)

He says the sector, with its artisan firms using slow traditional methods to dry their harvest, needs to work together with firms like his which use expensive drying equipment to ease bottlenecks in the supply chain.

“Demand for Scottish seaweed will outstrip supply, and we need local and national support as well as private investment to grow the industry,” he adds.

Scottish consumers could help by embracing seaweed in their diet, he adds.

“A big problem is people think seaweed is smelly, stinky and gloopy. But fresh seaweed is amazing with a lovely aroma.

“When people visit our factory, they are surprised at the smell of it. Some have a slight seaweed smell, but you don’t necessarily taste it. Some have a peppery taste one, one has a garlicky taste.

“We even smoke some of our seaweed flakes – it’s a bit like peaty whisky.”

House of Seaweed produces dried and flaked seaweed to be used as a food flavouring and in production of bioplasticsHouse of Seaweed produces dried and flaked seaweed to be used as a food flavouring and in production of bioplastics (Image: Contributed: Seaweed Enterprises/House of Seaweed)

And although Irish diners have seaweed sausages and kelp ice cream, Paul Cobb, whose firm, Roaring Water Sea Vegetables Co, produces the seaweed sausages, says the sector there has the same bottleneck issues as here.

“We are all waiting for a commercial refinery that can take wet chilled weeds and extract the pyramid of products – medicinal, culinary, cosmetic, animal food supplements, industrial, fertiliser, etc.

“If you compare the industry to dairy, we are still at the horse and cart stage. Meanwhile, other Maritime European countries are racing ahead with significant government investment.”