‘Pasta for the planet’: PhycoHealth serves up seaweed to UK consumers

PhycoHealth is bringing food and supplements made from sustainable Australian seaweed to the UK.

Australian seaweed food and supplements brand PhycoHealth was recently awarded the IFE Manufacturing Ingredients Award for Innovative Protein Source at IFE Manufacturing in March 2024.

That was a proud moment for the company’s founder, marine ecologist Dr Pia Winberg. The globally successful brand began as a quest to clean up the oceans. Her decades of research kept coming back to seaweed as key to solving the twin challenges of ocean restoration and sustainable food production.

‘I thought, seaweed is such an amazing crop for productivity and sustainability,’ she says. ‘It has all this nutritional potential we’re missing from the modern food system. Maybe that’s the way to convince people to grow more.’

Research to rediscover lost knowledge

‘All human civilizations until modern industrialisation used seaweed as a food source, but much of that old knowledge seems to have been lost,’ says Winberg.

PhycoHealth is based on the New South Wales South Coast, on the Traditional Lands of the Jerrinja and Wodi Wodi saltwater peoples. Winberg works closely with members of the community. ‘Some of the Aunties are over 90 years old,’ she says. ‘They will tell you that this type of seaweed is women’s business and that one is good for your gut. I had to do clinical studies to work that out.’

The plant proteins, dietary fibres and micronutrients such as iron, B12 and iodine that are found in seaweeds are missing from many diets. ‘Some of this research is really hard to communicate in a world where there are so many fads and misinformation,’ says Winberg. ‘That’s why it’s important to do clinical studies.’

Seaweed farms significantly reduce the carbon footprint of neighbouring food processors.

‘Large-scale food production systems release CO2, nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients,’ says Winberg. ‘We capture these and harness their nutritional power for our seaweed farm. By returning and keeping them in the food chain, we close the loop in a sustainable industrial ecology system.

‘We need to break down the silos of how our energy and resources flow through our systems across industries. Only then can we have a big impact,’ adds Winberg. 

A girl holding a bowl of seaweed pasta and sucking a strand into her mouth.

PhycoHealth's range of products include seaweed pasta.

Sneaking the healthy stuff back into modern diets

Even with that research, ‘it’s a big leap to start educating people about the benefits of putting seaweed back in the diet,’ says Winberg. ‘When I stood there with bags of seaweed, people just looked at me and scratched their heads.’

Undeterred, Winberg turned to the trick favoured by parents everywhere: sneaking the vegetables in. ‘Pasta for the planet is my personal vision,’ laughs Winberg.

That approach appears to be working. PhycoHealth’s range of seaweed snacks and pantry goods includes pastas as well as muesli, corn chips, nuts and chocolate.

The company has also embarked on the export journey. This is thanks in part to a meeting with presenter and writer Dr Michael Mosley at the BBC World Changing Ideas Summit in Sydney in 2016. The following year, Mosley’s book, The Clever Guts Diet, was published, citing Winberg’s research. PhycoHealth started fielding calls from the UK and Winberg realised the potential of the market.

Austrade’s assistance helped navigate path to export

Getting product into UK stores involved a steep learning curve. This is where Austrade’s support came in. ‘I didn’t know which stores would be right for us,’ says Winberg. ‘We had no idea how the export process worked, what a bill of lading was, or labelling regulations. We pretty much needed help with everything.’

Through Austrade, PhycoHealth started attending international food shows to get exposure to international markets and begin learning how to access them. It also needed help connecting with trusted people and services, including logistics people in the UK.

The Australian Government’s Export Market Development Grant (EMDG) helped PhycoHealth establish UK sales. ‘Export requires steep investment in marketing and the supply of sample products,’ says Winberg. ‘We also needed a person on the ground to raise awareness of our products. We also needed someone to help us get the goods into the UK.’

PhycoHealth sells direct to UK customers and is available in 51 Holland & Barrett stores across the UK.

Free trade agreement opens up wholesale and direct markets

Prior to the Australia–UK Free Trade Agreement (A-UKFTA), the tariff on PhycoHealth’s products ranged from 8 to 10%. Removing that tariff made a significant difference to wholesale sales.

However, it made an even bigger difference for direct customers, says Winberg.

‘We had been selling direct to the customer in the UK so individual customers had to pay fees and duties to collect the package. On £50 worth of product, they could be paying another £30 to get the package. To nurture our customers, we were paying that fee for them but that was not sustainable for us.’

Contributing to global nutrition and sustainability

Ten years on, with the world’s attention on sustainable food production solutions, PhycoHealth has clearly found a global market. The map of retail outlets on PhycoHealth’s website shows pins all over the world.

‘Of course, that’s only step one of where we need to go if we’re going to address global nutrition and global sustainability issues,’ says Winberg. ‘But it feels like a pretty big step from when I stood there with a test tube of seaweed and an idea.’

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