Seaweed superfood makes a splash
Australian seaweed is making a sustainable superfood splash into the multi-billion-dollar global industry.
Almost all of what is the world’s biggest aquaculture crop is farmed in South East Asia and China. But on the Bomaderry River at Nowra in New South Wales, Australia’s uniquely green seaweed is being grown at great rates using nutrient-rich agricultural wastewater from Shoalhaven Starches.
The biggest and most technologically advanced facility of its kind in the world, and first to be certified by the international Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials, Shoalhaven Starches is owned by 100 per cent Australian family agribusiness Manildra Group.
By combining estuarine systems with aquaculture to cultivate seaweed for nutraceutical, pharmaceutical and food products, Venus Shell Systems founder and chief scientist, Dr Pia Winberg, has put her published research to the test.
“Pia has engaged innovative biological principles that have allowed us to take low-value by-products and create unique ingredients for markets that we haven’t competed in previously,” said Manildra Group Product Development Manager Mark Baczynski.
He said the sustainability edge opened access to an elite market – complementing Manildra’s focus on world-best practice to add value to Australian industries and communities by developing innovative products, unrivalled in quality and value, for a global market.
“In the commodity sphere, this opens up a whole new frontier for sustainable, high-end, customer demand-driven products – which is often talked about but rarely achieved,” said Mr Baczynski.
Two decades in the making, the success of Dr Winberg’s visioncan be seen today in a range of
food products – including bright green corn chips and healthy snacks with wide appeal from kids to Mexican corn chip makers and NSW Government House; to the Australian Foods Awards-winning PhycoFood CoTM range.
PhycoFood CoTM has won a gold medal for its seaweed dukkah blends; a silver for its gourmet protein used in bars; and two bronze medals for seaweed-roasted macadamias and pasta (made with Manildra durum semolina as well).
Dr Winberg said the seaweed was a good source of omega-3, iodine and dietary fibre, with 35 per cent of protein and all essential amino acids.
“We wanted to get this into everyone, every day – we didn’t want to compete with nori or other Asian foods that people eat once a month – so we knew we had to get this into Australian dishes such as pasta,” she told The Cultivator.
“We also sell the green powder to chefs, who have been very adventurous with it.”
Dr Winberg said some of the health benefits had been put to the test in clinical trials “looking
at shifting the gut flora to assist people who have pre-diabetes, or inflammation in the gut, and/or psoriasis”.
“Australia has unique seaweeds in our oceans, just like we have unique gum trees,” she said.
Pour in the nutrient-rich wastewater recycled through Shoalhaven’s fully integrated manufacturing processes, and Dr Winberg said “with one hectare of seaweed farm production, you could grow 100 tonnes of dry product a year”.
Manildra Group Managing Director Peter Simpson said hosting Dr Winberg’s seaweed project was a natural fit for Manildra’s fully integrated facility, which extracts value from 100 per cent of the grain.
“The ecological system Pia has created at Venus Shell Systems provides the perfect solution for a closed-circuit sustainable enterprise with our industrial processing,” he said.
By utilising 100 per cent of Manildra’s wastewater by-products to further value-add, Dr Winberg also noted “a clean loop on waste produced”at Shoalhaven’s newly built food facility.
“The wastewater from washing down all the wheat is full of organic nutrients, and it’s sent over to the wastewater treatment plant, where 80 per cent of the water is recovered as a concentrated nutrient source – nitrogen and phosphorus,” she said.
“Because this is so concentrated, we can add that straight into the water to cultivate the seaweed. It also has carbon dioxide from the fermentation of the ethanol.
“So that’s very clean carbon dioxide – it helps the seaweed grow faster – and is in part why we achieve such high growth rates.
“Also processed at Shoalhaven is some of the food in the new facility.
“We just add salty water from the river and sunlight and our seaweed technology and the washdown waste product – so there is no waste. We have completed a clean loop on what is being produced at Shoalhaven, essentially creating an industrial ecology, really.”
With seaweed being the world’s biggest aquaculture crop and 95 per cent of production in Asia, Dr Winberg has been backed by AgriFutures Australia for over a decade and continues to work with them on the best practice for standards of seaweed, and to explore other options in South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania, in a bid to enter the US$6 billion global market.
The funding support enables Dr Winberg to continue about a decade of research screening seaweeds from across the continent’s southern states to identify genetic barcodes – many not previously identified – and to optimise production factors such as temperature, acidity and light.
“The serendipity and synergy here at the Shoalhaven site is that not only can we clean up marine nutrients with the seaweed, we can even do it with wheat processing nutrients – and that’s what we’ve demonstrated,” said Dr Winberg.
“The future of seaweed production is going to be in farming, not through wild harvest, because there’s not enough in the wild to do that.
“This variety of green seaweeds – which haven’t really been scaled into the marketplace as much as the red and brown seaweeds – are uniquely Australian and grow quickly.
“The journey, that I have had to demonstrate, is first, we have some great seaweed; second, we can grow them; and three, we can sell product from them, which is also great for human health and nutrition. Now we are ready to scale.”