We’re always curious about what customers think of seaweed, Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, and how we could improve. So, this past year when we reopened from our annual August shutdown, we invited customers to take our first ever survey. By coincidence, another survey about seaweed consumption was also just released, carried out with a much larger group of random Americans. The two surveys complement each other in some interesting ways, which we will share in this blog post. But first, a little background on survey methodology.
Seaweed Survey Methods
At the end of August, we emailed an invitation to about 1,600 customers to participate in a Maine Coast Sea Vegetables customer survey. We knew the first response was likely to be, “oh no, not another survey”, so we added an incentive: respondents received $5 off an order! Out of 1,030 customers who opened the email, 113 responded.
The MCSV survey had 18 questions; some were multiple choice while others asked for a written response or comment. The questions covered topics such as how and why people used sea vegetables, their favorite sea vegetables, what they liked and disliked about MCSV, suggestions for improvement, and health concerns. Respondents didn’t have to answer every question, and three questions regarding health concerns only had 50 respondents.
The other survey was conducted in December 2020 through a project run by the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center (MAIC). The MAIC assists in developing economically and environmentally sustainable aquaculture opportunities in Maine, and their survey was intended to help growers better understand the farmed seaweed market. Whereas the MCSV survey targeted a select group of customers of wild harvested sea vegetables, the MAIC survey was oriented towards farm-raised seaweed and it targeted American consumers at large, whether or not they even ate sea vegetables. It’s fair to refer to MAIC survey respondents as the general public.
The MAIC survey was funded through a grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). It was designed in collaboration with Dr. Karina Gallardo, agricultural economist at Washington State University, and Maine-based market research firm Atlantic Corporation. The final survey was administered by Dynata, a global online sampling and market insights firm. Chances are good that many of us have been contacted by Dynata at one time or another! The survey targeted 600 respondents from each of the nine U.S. census regions for a total sample size of 5,400, with the sample balanced for age group and gender. The types of questions included whether people did or did not use seaweed, why they used or did not use seaweed, how they used it, whether they preferred farmed or wild seaweed, and demographic data such as age, gender, educational level, and income. Survey results with an interactive dashboard can be found here.
Together, the two surveys paint a portrait of American attitudes and knowledge regarding seaweed. Some of the more interesting findings (to us anyways) are presented below.
Seaweed is popular.
We already knew MCSV customers were loyal and enthusiastic sea vegetable consumers; almost 2/3 of our respondents have used our products for longer than five years and 14% for twenty years or more. However, we were pleasantly surprised by how many Americans at large also used seaweed. According to the MAIC survey, 36% of the general public has purchased or consumed seaweed.
Not so surprising, we also learned that ancestry and culture play important roles in whether someone uses seaweed. Seventy-nine percent of MAIC respondents who identified as Asian said they used seaweed; 42% of people who identified as Black did, and 31% of people who identified as White did.
Seaweed is even more popular with young people.
The MAIC survey asked for demographic information such as age and gender, so it was able to find differences between groups. Although there was no gender-based difference, there was an age-based difference. Fifty percent of respondents aged 18-35 years said they used seaweed, but only 28.7% of people aged 45-65 said they did.
Since the MCSV survey did not gather demographic data we have no sense of the race, age, or gender of MCSV customers, but we’re happy to see that so many young people in the general public use seaweed. This bodes well for the future!
More education encourages more seaweed consumption.
The MAIC survey found that the more formal education someone had received, the more likely they were to consume seaweed. Just 24% of people with only a high school degree used seaweed, compared to 46% of people with an advanced degree who used it.
Higher income encourages more seaweed consumption.
The MAIC survey also found that the more income a person had, the more likely they were to use seaweed. Twenty eight percent of people earning <$35,000 per year reported being seaweed consumers, but 45% of people earning >$50,000 per year did.
It’s tempting to conclude that richer people are more likely to use seaweed because they can afford it, but we’re not convinced this is true. After all, MCSV offers many highly nutritious, flavorful, and useful sea vegetable products for under $5, such as our line of Sea Seasonings. Since income level is often related to educational status, it’s difficult to say which factor is driving the difference.
The general public purchases most of their seaweed from food stores.
MAIC survey respondents reported annually spending, on average, $82.13 on seaweed in food stores, $50.80 in restaurants, and $40.35 from on-line and other home-delivery services. Of course, MCSV specializes in direct-to-consumer on-line sales, so we didn’t ask this question. Clearly, though, there is a lot of opportunity to expand on-line sales!
People use seaweed many different ways.
According to the MAIC survey, the most popular use for sea vegetables is as a topping for salads, soups, and other foods. MCSV customers were similar in this respect; 56% said they used sea vegetables as a minor component in cooking, which we take to mean as a flavor enhancer or topping.
Not surprisingly, 55% of the MAIC survey respondents said they consumed seaweed in sushi. In this regard, MCSV customers may have a broader understanding of how sea vegetables can be used, as hardly any remarked upon consuming it in sushi.
A lot of people in both surveys said they used sea vegetables as a nutritional supplement; nearly half of the MCSV respondents used it to supplement nutrition shakes and smoothies, and 33% of the MAIC respondents used it that way. Other popular uses included as a snack; for skincare; as animal feed; and as plant fertilizer.
People eat sea vegetables all day long.
The MAIC survey of the general public asked seaweed consumers how often they ate seaweed during breakfast, lunch, dinner, as a snack, and for holidays or special occasions. Although 52.7% said they didn’t have seaweed with breakfast, 21.3% said they did at least once a week, and 17% said they had it at breakfast 2 to 3 times per month. Seaweed at dinner was the most popular choice with the general public, with 37.7% saying they had seaweed with dinner 2 to 3 times per month and just 12.9% of seaweed consumers saying they never ate it at dinner. Many people also ate it with lunch, and seaweed is a very popular snack; 27% of seaweed consumers snacked on seaweed.
Similarly, when asked how often they used sea vegetables, nearly 63% of MCSV respondents said daily and another 23% said at least twice per week. Several commented on how they liked to start their day with sea vegetables, usually as a smoothie ingredient but also mixed in with oatmeal or eggs.
MCSV customers reported using seaweed with food in a variety of fashions; for example, one person likes to sprinkle dulse granules on sliced bananas, another person adds dulse to fish, deer, or moose stir fries, and a third likes to add chopped kelp/laver/alaria to rice dishes and salads. Several customers use sea vegetable granules or sea seasonings as a salt substitute. The possibilities are seemingly endless!
Customers generally eat small servings of sea vegetables.
Forty-eight percent of MCSV survey respondents ate just one tablespoon in a serving and 20% typically ate just one teaspoon. However, a sizable percentage (25.4%) ate ½ cup per serving (we’re pretty sure that’s leaf!). Only 6.2% ate one cup or more per serving.
The MAIC survey didn’t inquire about typical serving size, so we can’t say how the general public compares to MCSV customers.
People like to use seaweed for skincare.
Fifteen percent of respondents in the MAIC survey used seaweed for skincare, while 9.3% of MCSV customers used it for either skincare or thallasotherapy (hydrotherapy). One customer reported that they not only love to eat seaweeds, they also use them (especially kombu and wakame) in a skin tea that they make with other herbs and oats for use as a face wash and in their bath.
We discussed the benefits of seaweed hydrotherapy in a past blog post and plan to explore the topic of seaweed for skincare again in a future post.
Dulse is popular.
Or at least it is with MCSV customers; 81.3% checked dulse as one of their favorites. Some of that may be due to a popular book recommending dulse for metal detox, but as we often remind customers, other sea vegetables have the same cleansing properties while tasting just as good. Other sea vegetables popular with MCSV customers included Sugar kelp (35.5%), Laver (30.8%), Alaria (23.4%), and sea lettuce (21.5%).
The MAIC survey phrased the question as one of awareness, not popularity. Interestingly, MAIC survey respondents were more familiar with sea lettuce (25%) than with dulse (15%). In fact, the general public appears to be more familiar with horsetail kelp (digitata), rockweed, skinny kelp, sugar kelp, and winged kelp than with dulse. Only Irish moss and laver had lower recognition scores with the general public than dulse. Of course, surveys are not an exact science and we can’t help but wonder if the familiarity factor had as much to do with the words “lettuce” and “kelp” as it did with the actual sea vegetable.
People use sea vegetables to improve health.
Health concerns motivated the first-time purchase of sea vegetables for about half of MCSV survey respondents. Phrased another way, 45% of MCSV customers said the most appealing aspect of using sea vegetables was their cleansing benefits and 34% said other health benefits.
How they used sea vegetables for health was described in more detail by 50 respondents willing to share on this most personal of topics. Thirteen people said they used them as part of a detoxification program to purge heavy metals, radiation, or other environmental toxins from their bodies, and 17 mentioned thyroid health or iodine supplementation. Several people used sea vegetables to relieve specific disorders or illnesses such as stuttering, chronic fatigue, cognitive impairment, MS, eczema, and cancer.
We believe there is sound scientific evidence to support these uses, and we were encouraged to see that 89% of the respondents reported an improvement in their health or symptoms. When asked to comment more specifically on how sea vegetables improved their health, four people reported increased energy and vitality, three reported better mental function (including relief from stuttering), two said they no longer had arthritis (but it came back if they stopped eating seaweed), and one reported their eczema cleared up. More generally, 96% of the respondents said seaweed improved their overall well-being.
The MAIC survey of the general public didn’t specifically ask about health or well-being as a motivation to use seaweed, but 12% of the respondents did say they used seaweed as a nutritional supplement. We take this as evidence that at least 12% of the general public understands that sea vegetables are good for health. On the other hand, when asked if a specific diet (none, keto, paleo, pescatarian, vegan, vegetarian) motivated them to purchase seaweed, the majority responded with none. The 2nd most chosen diet was vegetarian, followed by vegan. These diets don’t necessarily equate to a health concern, but there often is a relationship. The fact that just a relatively small percentage of the general public said they eat seaweed for dietary reasons suggests that perhaps many people still remain unaware of their health benefits.
People are concerned about food safety.
The MAIC survey found that the most important seaweed attribute to consumers is whether the products are safe for consumption. In a similar vein, consumers were more likely to prefer farmed seaweed if they believed wild-harvested seaweeds were comparatively less safe, less sustainable, or of lower quality. Overall, the general public perceives farmed seaweeds to be safer and more sustainable than wild-harvested seaweeds, but wild-harvested seaweeds were seen as being of better quality.
Safety is why Maine Coast Sea Vegetables was one of the first companies to consistently test seaweed for contaminants and other concerns and to share the results with customers. Sustainability is a core MCSV intention and one of the reasons we adhere to stringent Organic Certification standards that limit where and how we harvest. These values and our attention to detail help ensure we deliver the highest quality sea vegetables, and this commitment is reflected in customer comments we received from our survey. When asked what they liked about MCSV, over 25% of respondents mentioned safety or testing, sustainability, and high quality.
People don’t seem to have a strong preference for whether seaweed is farmed or wild-harvested.
Or at least this appears to be the case with the general public. Assuming everything else was equal (quality, price, safety, etc.), 37% of MAIC survey respondents said they would prefer wild-harvested, 33.5% said farmed, and 29.5% had no preference.
We didn’t ask about farmed vs wild in the MCSV survey, although based on two comments it appears some of our customers think we grow our sea vegetables rather than harvest them from wild beds. In a future survey, we will likely ask about this because we anticipate offering more farmed seaweed as seaweed mariculture develops in the US. And yes, if it’s farmed, we will say so on the label!
Consumers prefer the term sea vegetables over seaweed.
We didn’t ask this question in the Maine Coast Sea Vegetables survey because it goes without saying what our preferred term is! However, the MAIC survey found that some people who did not use sea vegetables found the term “seaweed” unappealing, which was one reason they did not want to try them.
Room for improvement.
Of course, there’s always room for improvement. When asked what we could do better, 38% said we were doing great, but 62% offered suggestions. These ran the gamut from making larger Kelp Krunch bars to offering more products. However, the most frequent suggestion was more recipes/cookbooks/cooking videos (9.8%).
This is in line with results from the MAIC survey of the general public, which showed that 64% of Americans do not use seaweed and the main reasons they don’t are lack of awareness, uncertainty on how to prepare them, and taste. That’s a lot of people missing out on the nutritional, health, and culinary qualities of sea vegetables! When people who didn’t use seaweed were asked what would encourage them to try it, the majority response (23%) was recipes, followed by access to easy-to-use products (18.7%).
Taste is a highly personal experience but it is also a matter of preparation and recipes. Maine Coast Sea Vegetables currently offers 37 recipes on our web site recipe page, and Kara, our in-house chef, is working on more. You can also buy cookbooks with dozens more recipes on our website, such as Sea Vegetable Celebration and The New Seaweed Cookbook.
Seaweed Survey Summary.
All in all, we found the results of both surveys encouraging. It seems more and more Americans are discovering sea vegetables, especially millennials and generation Z. It’s evident that people use them in all sorts of ways, and not just for food. Although for many, sea vegetables are still mostly encountered in sushi, a large and growing number of people are discovering what MCSV customers have long known…they add flavor and nutrition to any meal and they make a great healthy snack. MCSV customers also well appreciate the health aspects of sea vegetables and we believe this awareness will continue to catch on with the general public.
Knowledge is key to this awareness, but recipes and ease of use will unlock the door. The future of sea vegetables seems bright, especially as mariculture farmers grow more of it here!