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June 24, 2022

Is Seaweed the Next Big Alternative to Meat?

From Lauren Oster’s article in Smithsonian Magazine. Umaro also recently received a PETA Vegan Game Changer Award presented by actor James Cromwell, who starred in the hit movie “Babe.”

[…] Umaro Foods—a Berkeley, California-based company that secured a $1 million investment on an episode of ABC’s business reality show Shark Tank that aired this April—debuted its seaweed bacon just last week at three eateries in San FranciscoNashville and New York City. The company’s patent-pending protein is a functional replacement for heme, the red precursor to hemoglobin that enables some plant-based products to “bleed” and mimic meat, with the same color and umami enhancing properties. Cofounders Beth Zotter and Amanda Stiles intend to make a splash with their innovation.

“[We] are firm believers that you can’t guilt people into eating less meat. You have to make something that tastes delicious and that also delivers all the nutritional profile that people expect,” Zotter says. “[Bacon is] a product notorious for being hard to give up for vegetarians. It’s sort of like the gateway drug that makes people revert back to full-on carnivory. So we’re really excited to hopefully provide the product that’s the gateway in the other direction that finally allows people to give up meat.”

Kelp is comparatively low in protein, but Umaro Foods has found another aquatic plant that delivers it in spades. “The seaweeds that we’re using right now are red seaweeds, in particular nori, which is actually up to 40 percent protein—even higher than a soybean,” Zotter explains. Soybeans derive 35 to 38 percent of their calories from protein, per the U.S. Soybean Export Council. “We see a potential for technology and even traditional breeding programs to increase the protein content of seaweeds and make it a really high-quality, large-scale source of protein to basically compete with soy in both cost and scale,” Zotter adds. In their present incarnation, four strips of Umaro’s seaweed bacon featuring its proprietary protein ring in at 240 calories and deliver one gram of protein.

Zotter and her partners aren’t just looking to seaweed for protein. “[The bacon] employs the protein but it also employs the hydrocolloids, which are the gels that make seaweed bouncy and squishy,” she says. “So we’re using those hydrocolloids to create a really great fat analog. One of the things that makes bacon so delicious is how much fat it contains. We’ve used the seaweed hydrocolloids to effectively—and this is one of our innovations that’s patent pending—to encapsulate plant-based oils like sunflower oil and coconut oil inside of a matrix that essentially replicates the mouthfeel and crispy texture and fat release of animal fat.”

Is it working? At New York City’s Egg Shop, one of the bacon’s three debut restaurants, tasters reported a smoky depth of flavor, springy crispiness, and a strong salty profile that adds dimension to breakfast sandwiches.

The Umaro Foods team hopes to build on the momentum of alternative-protein success stories like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods to lead meat eaters to even more scalable, sustainable swaps, and they welcome company. “I think there’s room in a growing market for lots of people to compete,” Zotter says. “Competition means that the products are going to get better, and I think that’s good for everybody right now.” […]