The coastal areas of Asia have long been home to fishermen, since fishing traditionally provides both a means of income and food for families. But recently, too many people are fishing too much. As a result, the fish populations are shrinking at a rapid rate. This presents grave implications for the fishermen, the economy, the environment, and of course the fish! So some fishermen are searching for new, more sustainable ways to make a living. And seaweed is proving to be just the ticket!
Seaweed has actually been harvested and eaten in Asia for centuries. In places like China, Korea and Japan, seaweed is part of the everyday diet. In these countries, people often harvest the seaweed from wild-growing plants rather than cultivating it. But for many years in the Philippines and Indonesia, folks have been cultivating the seaweed in small underwater farms. This type of underwater farming is called “aquaculture”.
Seaweed is extremely nutritious. Some types of seaweed also have a unique capability: certain chemicals in them cause liquids to thicken and become gooey and gelatinous. One such chemical is called carageenan, and it is used in many foods to make them thicker and more stable at different temperatures. Now this might sound weird, but there are lots of times we want liquids to become thicker or even solid – like when making gummy candy, for example!
In the 1970s, a worldwide demand arose for carageenan and other seaweed extracts. Fishermen in the Philippines realized that there was a big market for special types of seaweed like Euchemia cottonii (which carageenan is derived from), and many of them took up seaweed farming as a result. Today, seaweed farmers in the Philippines grow 80% of the world’s carageenan, and they get a good price for it because of the high demand. Another benefit is that since most of the carageenan is grown by small-scale, independent farmers, the income goes directly to the families who grow it. And thankfully, since growing seaweed doesn’t hurt the environment like fishing does, it is a sustainable and eco-friendly business.
The process for growing seaweed is simple, but requires a good deal of knowledge about the environment. Choosing the right spot to grow the seaweed can be the most important step. The water depth, movement, temperature, and salinity (saltiness) must all be taken into account. And you’ve got to watch out for sea turtles, sea urchins, and rabbit fish – they love to eat seaweed too! Euchemia cottonii in particular grows best in warm, shallow, and salty waters.
Once an appropriate location is chosen, two bamboo poles are anchored there on the ocean floor, with nylon string strung underwater between them. Seaweed seeds or small pieces of actual seaweed are tied to the string and left to grow for a few months. Once they have grown large enough, parts are cut off to be processed into carageenan. The rest of the plant is left to grow back until it is again large enough to be cut.
The harvested seaweed is spread on a flat surface in the sun and left to dry for a few days. Once it is dry, the salt is removed by sieving the seaweed with mesh screens. Then the dried seaweed is washed and ground into small particles. And that’s it – you’ve got usable carrageenan! Now you can take it from here with a Make Your Own Gummies Kit, and see how carrageenan is made into gummy candy – just by boiling it in water and adding sugar and flavoring. Pretty neat, huh?
But wait, there’s more! Did you know that carrageenan is the secret ingredient in many of the products you use every day? That’s because carrageenan is capable of so many different things, from thickening liquids to making foods taste richer to keeping dairy products from separating. Here is just a small list of the types of products in which carrageenan works its invisible magic: ice cream, cottage cheese, toothpaste, soy milk, sandwich meat, and shampoo. And let’s not forget gummy candies!
Now, most gummy candies you buy in the store aren’t made from carrageenan – instead, they use gelatin, which is made from animal bones. Gelatin works just as well, but it leaves people who don’t want to eat animal bones (like vegetarians) out of luck. And we think that’s a little unfair, because gummy candy is just so much fun to eat. So we’ve made our Gummies Kit using carrageenan — it’s better for vegetarians, better for the environment, and better for the seaweed farmers in the Philippines. Believe it or not, a world of good can come from one yummy little gummy!