Summer Fancy Food Show 2016

Seaweed: How a Korean side dish became a hit with US snackers

By Douglas Yu contact

- Last updated on GMT

Seaweed is making a growing impression on the US snack market: Photo: iStock
Seaweed is making a growing impression on the US snack market: Photo: iStock

Related tags: Olive oil, South korea

In half a decade, seaweed has made the leap from traditional Korean side dish to an ingredient making a big impression on the US snacking scene.

At the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City this month, BakeryandSnacks examined how snack products made with seaweed (typically the red algea porphyra) have found an audience in the US.

The leading seaweed snack brand in the US natural food channel, according top Spins data, is the Sea Snax range founded in Los Angeles six years ago.

Healthy kids' snack

Chief executive Ben Kim and his wife created the product as a healthy seaweed snack for their children. The business was initially entirely self-funded.

“We started selling our products at a food store across the street where my wife studied acupuncture," Kim told BakeryandSnacks. "The store loved our seaweed and, within a month, our products were in Whole Foods.”

Rather than target Asian consumers specifically, the business had found a way of making seaweed palatable to American consumers - and pitched its products as healthy snacks suitable for anyone.

Sea Snax products, which are cooked with extra virgin olive oil, are sold in formats including snack sheets ($1.99/15g package) and roasted seaweed sticks ($3.49/20g bag). Flavors include Chipotle and organic onion, and the recently launched lime flavor that won a Sofi Award from the Specialty Food Association.

The brand is available in mass stores and natural channels across the US, and generates around 15% of its revenue from Canada. 

“We’ve been tripling our business growth every year since the beginning,”​ Kim told BakeryandSnacks.

Seaweed snacks are relatively new to Asia as well as the US, said Kim, adding that since Sea Snax launched in the US similar brands have started emerging in Korea

“It’s interesting that a traditional food is going backwards,”​ he said.

At the Fancy Food Show were Korean companies looking to bring their seaweed snacks the US.

“Seaweed is like kimchi for Korean people as a side dish, but I thought it could be a convenient healthy snack for us on a daily basis,”​ said Chi Won Ok, chief executive of manufacturer Git Deum.

He added the business started in South Korea five years ago, when seaweed chips were not a popular snack.

However, “seaweed sheet existed in Korea a hundred years ago,”​ Ok said.

The range comprises flavored seaweed chips that are cooked with rice bran oil and are gluten-free and non-GMO.

“Our products are not available in the US market yet, but we’ve talked to many brokers at the show," said Ok. "We’re hoping to introduce our brand to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s by the end of the year.”

Git Deum said its seaweed snack will retail around $3.50 for a 30g bag, with the range comprising 10 flavors including onion and black pepper. The business is also developing flavors specifically for US consumers.

“America is the biggest seaweed market in the world,”​ Ok said. “South Korea exports seaweed worth $30m to the US each year, and we’re hoping to seize 10% of that.”

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