Amidst the growing awareness about our planet’s climate crisis, there is now a burgeoning need for more sustainable food resources. In recent years, seaweed has been quite a catch for health-conscious consumers, in turn, making kelp, a brown macroalgae, one of the more in-demand types of seaweed offerings. As such, startup business AKUA is set to enhance the sustainability of the snack industry with its product line of kelp-based jerky and pasta.
“I started the company when I was an adviser to GreenWave, a nonprofit that trains ocean farmers. When I asked the farmers what they truly needed, they answered, ‘We need your help creating a consumer market for kelp.’ So, I started sending out 5-pound bags of frozen kelp to all my chef friends across the U.S.,” said Courtney Boyd Myers, co-founder and CEO of AKUA. “We came up with dozens of cool products and hosted tastings in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. One chef came up with kelp jerky, burgers and sausages — all vegan and made from kelp and mushrooms. That made me think, ‘Wow, what if we could create a line of meat alternative products from one of the most sustainable sources of food on the planet?’ Together with my co-founder Matt Lebo, we set out to launch AKUA and to bring regeneratively grown, kelp-based products into the world.”
Why is kelp a good idea for food sustainability? For one, Harvard University has documented that kelp plays a significant role in reducing global warming. That is attributed to kelp’s rapid growth rate, with some types of kelp growing up to 2 feet per day. Kelp is also able to naturally remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, mitigating rising temperatures and climate change.
Kelp is also appealing because of its nutritional value. According to the University of California – Berkeley’s Wellness page, kelp, as a seaweed, “is a rich source of several vitamins, including vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids), vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E and B vitamins.” Because kelp has been called a sea vegetable, alongside other seaweed, it likewise “contains vitamin K, which plays a role in blood clotting.”
Kelp’s health benefits extend beyond vitamins, as documented by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) FoodData Central site. Kelp is abundant in several minerals, such as calcium, copper, iron, magnesium and potassium. A University of California – San Francisco Medical Center study even documented that kelp has more calcium content than leading vegetables such as bok choy, collard greens, corn, curly endive and even kale.
Kelp is particularly important for its high iodine content, a characteristic it has in common with other brown seaweeds. Iodine is vital for the human body to optimize thyroid hormone production, metabolic functions, immune response and the health of both the central nervous system and skeleton. Pregnant women especially need iodine for the proper bone and brain development of the fetus. Besides that, iodine helps remove free radicals from human blood cells, in essence counteracting the free radicals responsible for accelerating a cell’s aging process.
Because of the health value of kelp, AKUA sought to leverage this as it developed its first product. “After studying trends in high protein snacking meets plant-based eating, we decided on creating a high-protein, soy-free vegan jerky made of kelp! In fact, today, Kelp Jerky is the world’s first meat alternative snack made from ocean-farmed seagreens and the only high-protein, soy-free vegan jerky in the market,” explained Myers.
With the dawn of this new decade, AKUA has been seeking new and innovative ways of presenting kelp into meals. This is why it also offers kelp pasta as another nutritious product. “We have always wanted to introduce this product because eating kelp in this way is how we fell in love with kelp to begin with, literally just dehydrated kelp cut into noodle form,” continued Myers. “But because it is such a simple product with almost zero barrier to entry, we wanted to wait until after we had introduced Kelp Jerky, which is an incredibly innovative product — Time magazine named it one of 2019’s Best Inventions.”
When asked about other food innovations and future plans for AKUA products, Myers eagerly shared, “In March, at Expo West 2020, we will debut our Kelp Balls, a slightly sweet snack focused on gut health that we created in partnership with next-gen microbiome company Biohm Health. If Kelp Jerky is all about protein and energy, our Kelp Balls will be all about improving your digestion.”
Besides being a food innovator, AKUA is also committed to leaving a positive impact. One of the ways it does this is by donating part of its annual profits to GreenWave, a nonprofit devoted to training the next generation of ocean farmers. AKUA additionally partners with Parley for the Oceans, an environmental organization that raises awareness about the fragility of our oceans and seeks to prevent ocean pollution.
Yet another key value for AKUA is its dedication to collaborating with local ocean farming communities. “Today, 98% of all seaweed is sourced from Asia, while AKUA sources 100% of its kelp from U.S.-based ocean farmers,” Myers said. “In fact, we are one of the first companies to utilize the emerging U.S.-based supply chain of ocean-farmed kelp, supporting the creation of hundreds of new jobs in our coastal communities.”
Minimizing its carbon footprint is another crucial mission for AKUA. Last year alone, the company’s Kelp Jerky product utilized “40,000 pounds of regeneratively ocean-farmed kelp … and pull[ed] 2,000 pounds — 1 ton — of carbon from the sea,” according to Myers. “As a comparison, this is the same amount of carbon created by just 300 cheeseburgers. Based on our conservative projections for our Kelp Jerky product alone, by year five, we will be removing 1 million pounds of harmful carbon from our seas each year. With this data in our pocket, we are positioning Kelp Jerky as a ‘carbon negative snack’ and building a brand that raises awareness for the climate crisis, food sustainability and ocean health.”
Images via AKUA