Seaweed is increasingly a part of consumers’ diet and incorporated in their health and beauty care items. This renewed prominence of this ancient ingredient is certainly welcomed by those that value wholesome and healthy food and, health and beauty care products that can be grown, harvested and processed in a sustainable manner.
Aquacultured seaweed in particular has the potential to be a game changer in how it is grown. The restorative and low input aquacultured seaweed industry has the potential to be a model for sustainable food production. These seaweeds can also be used in everyday health and beauty care items that enhance health inside and out.
To fulfill its potential though, seaweed products must assure they do not run afoul of consumer expectations. Modern consumers have some pretty high standards, that includes these value drivers:
Health & Wellness;
Transparency (an overarching driver).
A recent study of over 5,000 consumers summarized these drivers as follows (emphasis added):
Health & Wellness
The definition of Health & Wellness varies and includes attributes ranging from nutritional content to organic production to all-natural ingredients to fewer artificial ingredients. Health & Wellness is the most important and complex of the evolving drivers. Consumers’ considerations are broad and tend to vary at the category level. Companies must decode and dissect the nuances of consumer preferences around Health & Wellness, and then act quickly to respond.
Safety applies to both product attributes such as absence of allergens and fewer ingredients, and company attributes like detailed accurate labeling. Safety is considered both in the short-term (e.g., toxin free) as well as long-term (e.g., no carcinogens) and, as a result, has interplay with Health & Wellness. Companies should broaden their definition of “safety” to manage and satisfy an expanded set of consumer expectations.
Social impact encompasses company attributes such as local sourcing, sustainability, animal welfare, and fair treatment of employees. The number of consumers reporting strong Social Impact preferences is small, but represents a loud and vocal group that can sway public opinion. Companies must identify which issues have most opportunity or represent the greatest risk, and when to lead vs. follow.
Experience includes retail store layout and services, channel innovation, brand interaction, and personalized engagement spanning pre, during, and post-purchase. As consumer expectations increase, experience beyond the actual product or service can elevate satisfaction, trust and loyalty. Manufacturers must authentically engage with consumers, both directly and in partnership with retailers.
Transparency (an overarching driver)
Transparency requires product attributes such as clear labeling, certification by trusted third parties, and company attributes like access and trust.
The highlighted attributes above identify specific and identifiable consumer preferences. It is important that seaweed manufacturers address these preferences or risk tainiting the entire industry. Most retailers today stock a limited selection of seaweed products, so their experience with those products may well create the sole impression the retailer and consumer may have of seaweed products.
As an industry we should strive to create products consumers trust and value. At the MSE we have created our MSE Certified Program so that seaweed producers can assure customers that their products are safe and authentic.
The MSE Certified Program requires:
Truth in labelling-- accurate ingredients, nutritional facts and other label claims;
Traceability-- from the water to the consumer;
Food/product safety-- products that are tested to assure safety and integrity; and
Industry best practices are followed throughout the supply chain.
Seaweed may have a long tradition of use however to many consumers it is a new, if not novel, product. We all need to assure the consumer is purchasing safe and healthy products that are what they claim to be. Unfortunately, this is not often the case.
An exacerbating issue is the lack of regulation for truth in labelling. The benefits of kelp are well documented. The name recognition of kelp is being used by some producers to market rockweed as kelp. Rockweed is not a kelp, but has been called “kelp” historically and this fact forms the basis for the rationalization of these producers to market rockweed as such. The FDA does not consider rockweed a kelp and truth in labelling and transparency for the end consumer argue strongly that rockweed not be marketed as kelp. The most troubling and misleading trend is that consumer seaweed products that are labelled as kelp often are blended with rockweed to reduce their cost. Often rockweed is on the label of these products, although using its Latin name. At some point consumers will learn from the media (or a competitor!) that the product they thought was kelp was actually low cost rockweed. Rockweed has its benefits. Rockweed should merely be marketed as such and not labelled as kelp.
An even more troubling failure of labelling is the fact many seaweed products have nearly 1,000% of the recommended daily serving of iodine. This may not be an issue for many consumers, but for some such levels of iodine are simply too much and constitute a health risk. Wouldn’t it be responsible to place a warning on these products?
I believe we should all take labelling and marketing claims seriously as our customers certainly do!
The Maine Seaweed Exchange is committed to supporting sustainable seaweed aquaculture and being part of the conversation on how wild seaweed harvesting must be managed and regulated. We encourage a dialogue on all issues that relate to the seaweed industry.
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