Help for picky eaters: Seaweed

With an ever expanding human population, irreversible loss of arable land, and a high rick of mass species extinctions there are increasing worries about food security and a push towards intensive factory farming to feed the projected 8 billion in 2020 (Currently 13.1% -or 1 in 7- of the worlds 6.8 billion is starving) .  Looking at the ingredient lists of popular food products today, we find that many of our culture’s most beloved snacks sound more like science experiments than anything else. Yellow Dye #5, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Thiamine mononitrate, dextrose—these are a just few of the chemicals we routinely inject into “food” today. Sounds scary, huh? Well, Margaret Atwood takes it one step further In Oryx and Crake, envisioning a (not so unbelievable) dystopian future in which science and technology has run amok in a society with rampant capitalism and consumerism pushing genetically altered food onto the market as the environment is collapsing.   Instead of travelling down this untrodden path we should eschew our twinkies and McNuggets for healthier and more “natural” products.  In the Omnivore`s Dilemma by Michel Pollan the choice of what we choose to eat is explored as well as the implications of what`s at stake: our health, our chidrens, and the health of the environment that sustains life on earth.  In short he endorses savoring your food; appreciate the colors textures and beautiful forms of natural and organic fruits and vegetables.

Today, researchers are looking towards seaweed for proteins and other ingredients with health benefits for use as cheap functional foods. Edible seaweeds are consumed by coastal communities across the world and are a habitual diet in many countries, particularly in Asia. One of Bob Marley’s favorite drinks was Irish Moss (or Big Bamboo – I’m sure you’ll figure out why) a thick, clotted drink made with red algae, condensed milk and cinnamon, ginger, strawberry or vanilla.  The drink is served cold and is thought to have aphrodisiac qualities.  Loved for its taste but also for the promise of a healthier sexual lifestyle, Irish moss has been bottled and sold in almost every supermarket in Jamaica.  Indeed, whole seaweeds have been successfully added to foods in recent times, ranging from sausages and cheese to pizza bases and frozen-meat products.

Source of protein

Protein-rich red seaweeds such as Palmaria palmata (common name Dulse) and Porphyra (common name Sleabhac or Laver) could potentially be used to develop low-cost, highly nutritive diets that may compete with current protein crop sources such as soya bean. The protein content of Dulse varies from between 9-25% depending on the season of collection and harvesting while P. palmata has the highest percentage protein per gram of dried whole seaweed. Furthermore, valuable amino acids such as valine, leucine and methionine are present in Dulse and the amino acid profile of Porphyra species is similar to those reported for leguminous plants such as peas or beans.

Health benefits of seaweed

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) accounts for more than 4.3 million deaths each year and high blood pressure is a main cause of CVD.  ACE-I inhibitors are commonly used as therapy in reducing high blood pressure. Food-derived peptides may act as inhibitors of important enzymes such as Angiotensin I converting enzyme (ACE-I) and renin. Researchers at Teagasc have recently found a renin-inhibitory peptide in the seaweed Palmaria palmate and are assessing their use in bread products for human consumption.

The Marine Functional Foods Research Initiative, or NutraMara programme is attempting to develop the marine sector by identifying novel, functional foods and bioactive ingredients from seaweeds, microalgae, marine processing co-products and aquaculture materials.


“Nature is to zoos as God is to churches.”

-Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake