Jellyfish for future: Interview with Dr. Holger Kühnhold

A conversation with Dr. Holger Kühnhold from Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT) in Bremen. Holger Kühnhold breeds and researches mangrove jellyfish at the ZMT and sees great potential in this for the future nutrition of mankind.

Jellyfish bear a striking resemblance to SCOBYs

When it comes to nutrition of the future, our interest is piqued. We wanted to know more about what jellyfish are all about – read for yourself why we should eat jellyfish.

Jellyfish are announcing themselves as the “next big thing”. After soy, insects, algae or mushrooms, now jellyfish?

I would say it’s the mix that counts. In view of a growing world population on the one hand and increasing scarcity of resources and environmental problems on the other hand, the global food supply is one of the decisive challenges of our time. In order to be able to provide enough healthy and affordable food in the future, the diversification of our food supply will become more and more important. This involves both expanding the range of resources that we accept as food and new types of production systems. At the moment I am part of the Leibniz research consortium “Food4Future (F4F) -nutrition of the future” in which, among other things, we research and test the breeding of marine organisms (jellyfish, algae and halophytes) in novel, land-based / urban aquaculture systems. There is an unbelievably great potential in the extraction of food from saltwater organisms, since there is little or no competition with agricultural resources (such as fertile land and drinking water). However, we have so far preferred to use large predatory fish (e.g. tuna and salmon) as food from the sea. However, this usage strategy leads to massive overfishing in fisheries and in aquaculture to the unsustainable use of fish meal as fish feed. It would be much more efficient and sustainable if we were to feed more frequently on the marine resources at the lower end of the food chain. However, most of the primary marine producers are not directly suitable as food for humans. We can only eat macro algae, but not plankton. However, we can eat animals that only feed on natural plankton without additional feeding, such as sea cucumbers, mussels or jellyfish. The most efficient animal proteins for human nutrition lie dormant there, but also an abundance of health-promoting micronutrients.

To what extent do we even need alternative animal protein sources? It is also possible to be purely vegetarian?

Yes, of course, all in all we have to consume less, not every steak has to be replaced one-to-one with a different protein. In general, we don’t necessarily need animal protein, but a more diverse diet is then all the more important. Milk proteins also play a role, the production of which is again not sustainability ideals. Ultimately, it is about creating alternatives in order to be able to supply yourself with essential amino acids in a versatile way. Whether a vegetarian will accept an admixture of jellyfish in the interests of sustainability is another discussion.

Are there reservations about jellyfish as a food similar to that of insects?

I’m not a social scientist but the project GoJelly also studies how people react to jellyfish. My experience is: people would rather eat jellyfish than insects, as it is a rather indefinable mass for many. However, processed insects are still not consumed in large quantities and are still only available as a niche product, despite good sustainability values. In any case, we try to arouse curiosity and the desire to try it out. With such new foods, there are also concerns among consumers about pollution in the sea, e.g. with plastic. However, this also applies to existing options. New things are often questioned more fundamentally.

Would large quantities be easily and sustainably available if it were to be a success?

We first examine the land-based culture of different species of jellyfish. The mangrove jellyfish turned out to be the ideal candidate. These jellyfish live on the ground and have a very close symbiosis with microalgae. This symbiosis allows the jellyfish to use sunlight to build a biomass that is rich in animal-rich proteins. With optimal light conditions and with some plankton for food, these jellyfish grow very quickly in our aquaculture systems. I see great potential for land-based breeding in this species. Natural mass occurrences of different jellyfish are of course also interesting, but such events cannot be reliably predicted. The stocks still have to be researched much more precisely, including the effects of more intensive fishing.

What role does enjoyment play?

We are concerned with the efficient production of biomass. If that succeeds, let’s see how it can be used to produce food. This can, for example, be done as a powder, but the taste and texture are less relevant. But enjoyment is also a very exciting topic for us to get a feeling for the general acceptance in the population of jellyfish as food. I think eating jellyfish is so absurd here in this country that the “scary food” concept could work as an introduction. This would then be about enjoyment in the sense of a test of courage.

Packaging and storytelling play an important role here, for us at MILK. an important aspect.

Yes, exactly, a video could be made, for example, of what the future of jellyfish nutrition could look like in concrete terms. Many still think of some goofy stuff, but these are prejudices and do not correspond to how jellyfish could really get on the table.

The story also includes sustainability aspects. How could trade help ensure that the oceans are used more sustainably and efficiently?

One should make it clear what role we have in the food chain and appeal to consumers to deal with it and take responsibility. This includes becoming aware of what function we have in the food chain. Because what we eat has an impact on the ecosystem. Quotas and seasons would therefore have to be taken into account more. Generally speaking, the lower we place ourselves in the food chain, the more sustainably we eat – that is, better eat small fish than large fish and, in the best case, eat a lot of mussels, algae and sometimes a jellyfish. By the way, aquaculture is not a blanket solution and is neither better nor worse. Here, too, it is important to look closely, because this also has an impact on the ecosystem. The topic is complex and it is important to find out exactly how it is produced, e.g. which feed is used.

That would be an opportunity for retailers to market sustainability more actively, e.g. with quota fish sticks, which always contain what should be eaten according to these considerations.

Exactly, but with jellyfish of course.

Thank you for the exciting conversation, we would be happy to be able to think about packaging and selling jellyfish soon!

Holger Kühnhold

During the conversation we also considered how the MILK. Food Lab could contribute to the culinary processing of jellyfish. This resulted in a cooperation for which we were allowed to process mangrove jellyfish from the ZMT for the first time. You can read more about this here.