The idea that we can replicate smoky, fatty bacon out of a bunch of plants may seem outlandish, but that’s what many food companies are trying to do. Big players that traditionally push pork and small Bay Area startups are similarly tapping unusual ingredients like koji, rice and, most recently, seaweed for vegan bacon bliss.
Among the most promising new entries is seaweed bacon from Berkeley’s Umaro Foods, which has convinced chefs around the country to put it on their menus starting Wednesday. It’ll be in a Cobb salad at Michelin-starred restaurant Sorrel in San Francisco; a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich at Egg Shop in New York City; and a BLT at D’Andrews Bakery & Cafe in Nashville.
For Beth Zotter and Amanda Stiles, co-founders of Umaro Foods, bacon was the perfect showcase for the ingredient they’ve spent years perfecting: protein extracted from seaweed. First up to serve this curiosity is Alex Hong, chef and owner of Sorrel, who incorporates it into one of the bites that kicks off the restaurant’s tasting menu. His Little Gem Cobb one-bite salad is dotted with compressed cucumber, apricot, jalapeño, summer squash and Umaro bacon bits dressed in a bright acidic vinaigrette. (Don’t worry, the seaweed bacon isn’t green.)
“They worked great together,” Hong said. “I thought it was super playful.”
The Umaro founders appeared in April on “Shark Tank,” a reality television series where startups pitch their companies to investors, sporting jumpsuits and heels. Investor Robert Herjavec was not a fan — he spit the bacon out. Mark Cuban praised the crispy texture. Lori Greiner loved the “badass women.” The founders got three offers from the Sharks and chose Mark Cuban’s offer of $1 million for 7% of the company, though they ultimately couldn’t agree on terms.
Bacon is tasty, but what tempted Cuban was how Umaro was tapping the ocean as a source for protein. Because it grows in the sea, seaweed doesn’t need land, fresh water or fertilizer to produce — it’s already there.
“It’s a superfood for the planet,” Zotter said.
In addition to its climate-positive qualities, nori seaweed is a boon for its protein content. On par with soybeans, another staple in plant-based foods, nori is 40% protein by dried weight. To extract protein, nori is blended in a water-based separation process that involves centrifugation — high-speed spinning to separate particles — followed by spray drying. The end product is a purply-brown protein powder.
This purply powder forms Umaro’s bacon along with sunflower and coconut oil. Like pork bacon, it’s fat that best delivers flavor to our taste buds.
“They really nailed the fat,” Hong said. “The fat almost squirts into your mouth.”
To get that squirt, Umaro worked with Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center to dial in just the right amount of smoky, salty and fatty emulsion, which utilizes a blend of agar and carrageenan — gels that come from red seaweed.
Bacon is one of America’s favorite foods, which is why so many Bay Area plant-based startups are working to commercialize a pork-free version of it. In addition to Umaro Foods, Berkeley’s Prime Roots and San Francisco’s Hooray Foods have spent years toiling away in an effort to make plant-based bacon as good as the real thing. While none is identical to pork bacon, they’re each satisfyingly different.
Prime Roots taps koji — a fungus traditionally used to make miso and soy sauce — to form its bacon. Initially, the startup sold bacon online and feedback flooded in.
“Bacon has so many ways to interact with it,” said CEO Kimberlie Le. “Some people are crispy people and some are chewy. It’s hard to crack a bacon that’s good across that whole spectrum.”
After two years of continual improvements, the startup is pivoting from selling online to producing a slab “pork belly” designed for deli counters and restaurants. In addition to a change in form, the team upped the coconut oil to make it richer. Prime Roots plans to start selling bacon later this year in a range of locations from Michelin-starred restaurants to everyday sandwich spots.
“These products aren’t just for one type of person or coastal elites,” Le said.
Meanwhile, Hooray Foods, which started selling bacon at grocery stores like Whole Foods and Mollie Stone’s about 1½ years ago, is preparing for a bacon relaunch at retailers across the country. The team knew the first version, made primarily from rice flour and pea and tapioca starch, wasn’t perfect.
“The biggest challenge in bacon is texture — crispy and chewy — and then flavor. Then it has to be fatty,” said founder Sri Artham. “It’s just a really complicated product.”
While the first version was made of one blended material, the new bacon has three different parts that range in taste and texture. Artham said these distinct sections vary in viscosity, flavor and other physical characteristics. Artham said the upcoming bacon is also lower in calories, fat and sodium.
These bacons each feature wildly different ingredients, but they aim to deliver the same thing: bacon that’s delicious, helps humanity move away from industrial animal agriculture and nudges the climate in a better direction. For now, it’s the word delicious they need to focus on in order to gain consumer market share, and keep it. And for Zotter, there’s one more little thing: “It’s getting seaweed on the plates of everyone in the world.”