Kelp: The Next Superfood?


Every summer, students in the Marine Biodiversity and Conservation MAS Program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego spend a week on Catalina Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. Here, the students learn to identify local algae and fish species as well as how to measure their populations using belt transects.

However, this year’s most innovative experiment was rooted more in gastronomy than ecology or marine biology. After finding an excellent specimen of elk kelp (Pelagophycus porra) during an afternoon transect, the class decided to make kelp pickles. Easily identifiable for its antler-like branches and large, grapefruit-sized air bladders, elk kelp is one of the largest kelp species in Channel Islands National Park, second only to the giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera. Leading the charge was the program’s director Samantha Murray and Scripps marine ecologist Jen Smith—who has recently garnered mainstream and academic acclaim for being the first to farm Asparagopsis taxiformis, a red alga seaweed that agricultural scientists at UC Davis have found can reduce methane emissions from dairy cows by more than 50 percent.

Like traditional pickles made from cucumbers, kelp pickles pack a satisfying crunch that can be salty and garlicky like koshers or sweet and tangy like bread and butters. The idea is not new. Most seaweeds are edible, including the world’s currently 136 known species of kelp. Pickled bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) is a local favorite in southeast Alaska, and dried kombu (Saccharina japonica) is a staple in Japan, adding an earthy umami flavor to dashi soup stock, hot pot, sushi rice, and more. Kelp’s emulsifying and bonding agent, algin, is also a standard ingredient in a variety of everyday products, including toothpastes, shampoos, and medications. According to NOAA, between 100,000 and 170,000 wet tons of kelp are already harvested from California waters each year. Yet, America’s diet is still warming up to the idea of kelp as food.

Kelp is a healthy food choice both for people and the environment. Packed full of dietary fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and essential amino acids, kelp’s nutritional properties seem endless. Kelp is also a powerhouse of vitamins A, C, and E, as well as B vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin, and thiamin, which aid in energy production and maintaining a proper metabolism. Most kelp also grows more quickly than tropical bamboo – ranging around 10 to 24 inches a day, depending upon the species and environmental conditions – making it a sustainable resource.

“As society moves forward in the face of climate change, the importance of diversifying our food choices and fully utilizing the resources we already harvest is going to increase,” said Sarah Mesnick, science liaison for the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, cofounder of Scripps’ Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, and a key organizer of NOAA’s first Ocean to Table seafood event in San Diego.

The good news is that smart, adventurous eating is a small step that can begin immediately while delivering delicious and environmentally meaningful rewards, such as relieving commercial agriculture’s intense pressure on land-based resources, lowering the industry’s carbon dioxide emissions, and stabilizing the wild stocks of popular overfished marine species.

“Eating is a very powerful political, social, and ecological action,” said Mesnick. “A lot of global issues are caused by a food system gone awry; problems we can eat our way out of.”

To join the cause, try making kelp pickles at home. This southeastern Alaskan recipe is from Dolly Garza, a retired University of Alaska professor and Alaska Seagrant employee who focused on the traditional use of marine resources by Alaskan Native cultures. Insider’s tip—the stalk creates solid, bite sized pickles, while the air bladder results in large, donut-like rings.


Bull Kelp Chow Chow

By Dolly Garza

Chow Chow is a pickled vegetable medley with a mustard base. The amount and types of vegetables can be varied depending on availability and taste.


4 cups onions

4 cups sugar or 3 cups Splenda

1 cabbage

1 Tbs. celery seed

12 green peppers

2 Tbs. mustard seed

4 red peppers

1 tsp. turmeric

1-2 quarts bull kelp stipes

4 cups apple cider vinegar

¼ cup salt

2 cups water


Chop vegetables into large pieces and mix together. Sprinkle ¼ cup salt over them and let set 1 hour. Rinse and drain.

Mix together water, vinegar, sugar and spices and bring to a boil.

Pour over other ingredients and gently boil 5 to 8 minutes.

Put in jars, seal with lids and rings, and immerse in a hot water bath for 15 minutes to seal.

Minimize boiling to keep vegetables crisper.


✶ For hot Chow Chow add 2-4 hot peppers with spices.

✶ For sweet Chow Chow use 6 cups of sugar


-Amanda Millin is a current MAS student in the Marine Biodiversity and Conservation program.

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