Q&A: Michael Morrissey and Bacon-Flavored Seaweed

This week’s scientist is Michael Morrissey from Oregon State University. He was part of a team that patented seaweed that tastes like bacon and is packed with protein, vitamins and antioxidants.


Every Thursday, Laboratory Equipment features a Scientist of the Week, chosen from the science industry’s latest headlines. This week’s scientist is Michael Morrissey from Oregon State University. He was part of a team that patented seaweed that tastes like bacon and is packed with protein, vitamins and antioxidants.

Q: What made you interested in growing bacon flavored seaweed?

A: Pacific Dulse (Palmaria mollis) is a native red alga found in the inter-tidal zone along the West Coast, U.S., from Alaska to California. Dr. Chris Langdon, a professor at Oregon State University (OSU) who works in shellfish aquaculture has been growing dulse for about 20 years at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. Initially the research was focused on growing dulse for culturing abalone. In the process, they discovered a fast-growing dulse strain (C3) that forms pom-poms as it grows. It was patented by OSU because of these desirable traits.

We did not start working on dulse as a human food until about a year ago at the OSU Food Innovation Center (FIC). At this time, the FIC collaborated with Chuck Toombs, College of Business, and Dr. Langdon’s team to develop a project that took dulse from the culture tank to the dinner plate. Eventually, the FIC hired a research chef, Jason Ball, to develop new ways of preparing dulse in various dishes and products. Jason found that sautéing dulse brought out a savory bacon flavor that was not noticeable in the fresh plant. After an in-depth search of the literature and web-based reports, we found that others had also noticed this bacon flavor.

Q: What are the future implications of your research and findings?

A: There has been a tremendous amount of interest in incorporating seaweeds or sea vegetables into the U.S. diet. We think that dulse and other aquatic plants have a great future because of their nutritional value. Dulse has been harvested in the wild and consumed by humans for centuries in Scandinavia, Ireland and other northern Atlantic Ocean countries and Canadian provinces. There are several business ventures in Eastern Canada and Maine involved in the harvesting and drying of wild dulse. What OSU is pioneering is the development of a fast growing strain for aquaculture production. We took that dulse and began to develop products with the idea of introducing it into the marketplace. When we gave some dulse to a renowned local restauranteur, Vitaly Paley, and he said, “This is great – where can I get more?” we knew we were onto something. Jason Ball has been busy developing a number of products and we’ve been going full throttle since February of this year.

It has helped that dulse is a unique product that can be sustainably grown with little environmental impact and has a very good nutritional profile. One of the questions that people involved in agriculture and food ask themselves is how will you feed 10 billion people on the planet by 2050. You need a lot of tools in your toolbox for this to happen. Growing dulse in an aquaculture setting that has minimal environmental impacts and low energy inputs can be a valuable tool. Dulse by itself is not going to save the planet but is a great option to explore as a sustainable source of protein and nutrients.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you found in your research?

A: The surprising thing is probably the tremendous amount of interest this work has generated. Seafood and aquaculture have often been left out of the “feed the future” discussion. This is especially true of seaweeds and other aquatic plants, which is odd as some of these species are the fastest growing sources of protein and nutrients on the planet. I’m in the area of food science and a lot of that science that focuses on transforming raw material into useable foods. This work on production and utilization of Dulse has hopefully opened the door for more research in this area.

Q: What is the take home message of your research and results?

A: While Dr. Langdon has been working on dulse for 20 years it took someone to start thinking outside the box to really bring this together. Chuck Toombs, an adjunct professor from the OSU School of Business, was visiting with Chris at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, and saw his dulse operation. Chuck wondered whether the time was right for more development in the area of human foods. When Chuck found out that dried dulse from Maine sold at Whole Foods for about $60/lb. his business antennas perked up and Dr. Langdon told him about us at the Food Innovation Center in Portland. So, for me, the take home message is to be open to new ideas outside your field and welcome participation in trans-disciplinary science, something that is supported strongly at OSU. While it is difficult to predict what projects will be a success, the rewards are good and the knowledge gained always useful.

Q: What new technologies did you use in your lab during your research?

A: Our FIC laboratory is a fairly traditional food laboratory working with food entrepreneurs to help them bring their products to market. We do work in new technologies such as the use of lasers in food processing and variable radio frequency heating but most of the work we do is assisting start-up business. While they might not be using new technologies they are very innovative in their ideas and their approach to new product development. Every entrepreneur is different and we see over 300 each year so it keeps us on our toes.

Q: What is next for you and your research?

A: We were all caught by surprise by the amount of interest in dulse. We have been gently reminding folks that this is still a research project in the sense that only 30-50 kg are being produced each week, which is not going to meet demand. We will go forward in introducing some new products to the marketplace this fall. At the production end research is continuing in looking at different growing conditions, how to maximize nutrient uptake and even grow dulse in fresh water systems under the right addition of fertilizers and nutrients. The great thing about aquaculture is that you can control the environment that your plant — or fish — grow in. This can lead to some pretty exciting research work looking at a series of variables.