European Food: Your company’s mission is to upgrade food – at first: pasta and bacon – by replacing some key ingredients with seaweed. How do you plan to convince people that your products are just as delicious as “regular” pasta and bacon?
Willem Sodderland: With many people, the best way to convince them of this is to make them try it. Bloggers have become a really important channel to inspire people to try new foods. We have blogger outreach programs in every country in which we are active where the bloggers write about what our products taste like, what the story behind them is – and that is a really good way to reach people.
We are also showing people what others like to cook with our products. Many people don’t know much about seaweed, so they have no idea how you can prepare a nice meal with it. Showing what our customers and food bloggers are making with our food convinces people that seaweed is much more accessible than they think. And when they see it in dishes they are familiar with and in which it has replaced an ingredient, many are convinced.
On a smaller scale, we also work with chefs and show people what they are doing with it, which gives the product culinary credibility, as we call it. We made a small documentary with a Michelin star chef in the Netherlands, in which he prepared three dishes which everyone can also make at home.
Seaweed is considered to be the most nutrient-dense food in the world. Willem Sodderland
European Food: The word “upgrade” is usually used in the meaning of improving something and it implies that there is something deficient about the “regular” food we consume on a daily basis. What do you believe it is about the way we produce and consume food that needs an upgrade?
Willem Sodderland: The nutritional value of a lot of food is really low. In products containing highly processed flour, the actual grain – which can still be quite a healthy ingredient – has been ground to pretty much sugar. The nutritional value of many other food products is quite low as well. Even if you eat a lot of vegetables and fruit, these products usually come from areas where they don’t just grow in a natural way in the sun – and researchers have shown that the levels of vitamins and minerals are getting lower and lower and lower. A lot of food doesn’t give you what your body needs. Seaweed on the other hand is considered to be the most nutrient-dense food in the world, not only because it has a very wide array of vitamins and minerals, but is also rich in micro-nutrients like iodine.
Another reason is sustainability. As of now, humanity only gets about 2% of all food from the ocean, even though the ocean represents 70% of the planet. And if we keep eating off the land the way we do today, we will need four planets by the year 2050.
In Asia seaweed has primarily been in such heavy use due to its umami taste which adds a lot of flavor to your dishes. I think in the beginning, the nutritional and sustainability benefits will be the key reason for consumers in the West to eat seaweed, but more and more they will discover what chefs are already discovering, namely that seaweed has very interesting culinary benefits.
If we keep eating off the land the way we do today, we will need four planets by the year 2050. Willem Sodderland
European Food: On your website, you write about the seaweed you use growing on seafarms. How do you grow and harvest your product? Are there similarities to “traditional” farming on land?
Willem Sodderland: I think “seagriculture” will ultimately follow the same steps that agriculture has made on land. In the West, seaweed is still mostly in the wild harvest phase, which is where agriculture was a long, long time ago. In Asia you can get a glimpse of where we’re headed: 95% of the seaweed there is already being farmed.
Different kinds of seaweed reproduce in different ways, so there are many ways to farm it. But to grow the simplest one, you essentially take a little piece of seaweed from the wild, you attach it to nets or ropes or mats and then you put it back into the sea where it will grow. In Asia, this is being done on a very large scale where parts of the process are beginning to become automated. For instance, they have something that we call a giant lawnmower that goes past these very long and widely spread lines when the seaweed has grown sufficiently.
In Europe, there is still a lot of wild harvesting where the sea-farmers wade into the sea and cut or pull the seaweed by hand which is obviously much more labor-intensive and old-school. There are also companies which grow the seaweed in big saltwater basins and containers on land.
European Food: Besides its pasta and bacon products: What else will Seamore hold in store for its customers?
Willem Sodderland: We started with pasta and bacon in part because these products are basically unprocessed. They are pure seaweeds. They are essentially a proof of concept – we wanted to show that it could be done. These products are really pure and they cater to a group of people who are looking for very healthy, very sustainable, very pure unprocessed food.
We are currently venturing into a range of new products which we call “easy” as opposed to those we called “pure”. The first product of this group, which we will launch this week, is a seaweed wrap which has limited processing and is still 50% seaweed. To make that product, we had to find a way to replace at least part of the normal wheat in the dough, which took us more than six months to figure out. Now that we have achieved that, we are able to create dough to make products with a much lower percentage of wheat and gluten and a higher percentage of vitamins and minerals and dietary fibers. We can now use that technique to make a lot of other products. That’s why we will soon launch seaweed bread which will contain about 50% seaweed. We are also thinking of making pasta in a 50% variety which would make it more accessible to an even wider group of people, because the price will go down and it will be less edgy in the sense that it will be much easier to cook than the pure seaweed pasta. We are also currently exploring seaweed tea and how it could be mixed with other herbs.
The great thing about crowdfunding is that you can time it yourself. It makes you less dependent on the other funders like venture capital companies, so it improves your negotiating position. Willem Sodderland
European Food: You are currently offering crowdfunding opportunities through which one can register on your website to invest in your company. Why have you chosen this method to obtain fresh funds?
Willem Sodderland: We don’t see crowdfunding as a replacement of more traditional sources of funding like venture capital. In fact, we are currently speaking to a number of venture capital companies for the larger and longer-term funding of the company. The reason we are enthusiastic about crowdfunding is two-fold. One is that crowdfunding gives us much more control over the funding process, because when you speak with venture capital companies you are basically following their timeline: when they want to invest, when they are finished in their process of reviewing your business plan. The great thing about crowdfunding is that you can time it yourself. It makes you less dependent on the other funders like venture capital companies, so it improves your negotiating position.
The second reason is that crowdfunders are a small, but very passionate army of people who will try to help your company through word of mouth and other channels, because when they invest into a crowdfunding campaign, they become more than consumers, they become investors looking for a return.
Scientists have calculated that if you were to farm seaweed in an area only twice the size of Portugal, you would create enough protein every year for the entire world population. Willem Sodderland
European Food: At the heart of your company’s mission is the idea that eating seaweed instead of “regular“ food products will be beneficial for the environment and our planet as a whole. How do you believe seaweed contributes to this – and will this argument be strong enough to establish seaweed as an every-day food product?
Willem Sodderland: Of course we will have to see if this argument is strong enough, but I think this is a very convincing proposition, because larger and larger groups of people are starting to look for food that is very tasty and very healthy and sustainable all at the same time. The fact that seaweed comes from the part of the planet of which we have the most is very convincing. So is the fact that it is so nutrient-dense and that it has been used in so many regions in Asia as a key ingredient. These are all very good reasons why seaweed can become one of the key sources of food all over the world, especially when considering that there is a huge shift from animal protein to green protein, plants, right now.
Scientists have calculated that if you were to farm seaweed in an area only twice the size of Portugal, you would create enough protein every year for the entire world population. And that area is only a tiny part of the entire ocean surface on our planet. Now we need enough entrepreneurs to bring it to people, enough consumers to try it and share their enthusiasm and we need enough facilitation from governments, funders and investors to get this off the ground. And I am very optimistic about that.
Interview: Julian Miller