Growing up on a boat, I often viewed seaweed as more of a nuisance than a solution. Sailors and boat dwellers alike see fields of seaweed as something to avoid—it’s particularly disposed to rudder entanglement—but local surfer, fisherman and seaweed farmer Ian O’Hollaren sees a field of opportunity.
“There are things in this life that we are given, that we figure out how to harvest from the natural world and create products out of them,” he says. “Seaweed is a food source to society.”
O’Hollaren is the founder of Santa Cruz-based Seaquoia Wild Seaweeds, which harvests and sells upwards of 10 different seaweed varieties for multipurpose use, from cosmetic to culinary. He’s been in business for around five years, collecting seaweed off the Santa Cruz coast.
O’Hollaren runs all of the collection, distribution and farmers market sales of fresh and dried seaweed. One of his newest ventures is iodine supplements derived from giant kelp. Iodine is a crucial mineral, and iodine deficiency occurs when the soil is poor in iodine, leading to a low iodine concentration in food products, according to a study by the US National Library of Medicine.
Iodine deficiency is one of the largest worldwide public health problems, according to the study. More than 1.5 billion people worldwide are estimated to be at risk of iodine deficiency disorders—particularly pregnant and breastfeeding women who require nearly double the amount of iodine than the average person. Iodine deficiency can lead to enlargement of the thyroid, hypothyroidism and mental disabilities in infants and children whose mothers were iodine-deficient during pregnancy.
“More and more people are suffering from hyopthyroid issues, it’s not isolated to any specific population but those issues are usually higher in middle-aged women,” O’Hollaren says. “There are so many factors associated with iodine. We thought this was going to be a smoothie supplement at first, but only 1/32 of a teaspoon is all you need, it’s that potent.”
Willd giant kelp grows abundantly year-round off the coast of Santa Cruz. It can grow up to two feet a day, live up to eight years, and is rich in vitamins, minerals, amino acids and more. O’Hollaren harvests the giant kelp in the Monterey Bay himself—taking care to only harvest only the top four feet of the plant so that it can regrow—and then sends it to a facility to be freeze-dried and bottled. The supplements are newly available at Santa Cruz farmers markets. At $25 for 60 capsules, 1 tablet a day is 100 percent of the FDA recommended daily value of iodine for the average person.
“We have gotten the best testimonials you could imagine,” he says. “People say they feel more energetic, more balanced. It regulates heart rate, breathing, metabolic function, hormone levels and more. There are two hormones produced in the thyroid: thyroxine and triiodothyronine, those hormones reach every cell in our body, so if those are functioning a lot of things aren’t working. It’s amazing, I had no idea about the importance of iodine until we sent the kelp into the lab to be analyzed.”
While kelp, particularly giant kelp, is more sustainable and fast-growing compared to some land-grown produce, O’Hollaren notes that, despite their location, kelp forests aren’t free from deforestation. “A lot of the kelp forests generally have been depleting,” he says. “All of California’s kelp forests have been declining over the last 20 years, but it’s my hope, by producing these small batch niche products from giant kelp, that we can bring awareness of the medicinal values for humans, [and] the environmental factors that threaten the kelp forests and the overall health of the ocean.”
O’Hollaren and his team started working on the supplement last fall, alongside their other culinary deliveries. He says he has seen interest in seaweed increase over the last few years,
in part due to the growth of the aquaculture market. “When you think about eating seaweed, what do you do with it? It’s a sea vegetable. There is a bit of a disconnect there because we aren’t used to it in our society,” he says.
Seaquoia is also working on making bath products, including an oversized giant kelp tea bag for baths. Sequoia Wild Seaweeds also delivers locally sourced seaweed to Santa Cruz restaurants like Home and 515 Kitchen.
O’Hollaren has hosted several New Leaf workshops on cooking with seaweed and exploring the benefits of different types. He says the farmers market booth has helped increase awareness and conversation around the uses and benefits of sea vegetables.
“Seaweed works well in every culinary cuisine, essentially—there’s not one thing you have to do with it,” he says, adding that some of his recipes include kelp burgers, fish tacos, curries and stir fry. “Some people say, ‘I have to find a recipe for this,’ and I always say, ‘Well, you can do that, but also what do you do with an onion or garlic and broccoli? You can add seaweed in with other vegetables, you aren’t just eating giant bunches of seaweed. It’s up to you and your imagination. Go where it takes you.”