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Jul 28

6 Seaweed Secrets

seaweedSeaweed has always fascinated me. While other kids were screaming for their moms to get the icky, stringy stuff off their arms and legs at the beach, I was examining it up close, smelling it and collecting different samples to bring home so I could look them up in my encyclopedia. I wanted to discover the seaweed secrets.

Although that was decades ago (and I’m not revealing how many), seaweed is still a source of wonder. However, now much of my curiosity centers around the various ways the green, red, and brown algae can be utilized beyond serving as a wrapping for sushi rolls.

In fact, apart from the fact that people in Asia and in coastal areas around the world frequently consume seaweed in some form or another and that food companies use extracts of agar, alginate, and carrageenan from these marine vegetables, most people don’t pay much attention to seaweed.

But that is changing.

Seaweed secrets

Experts in various fields are uncovering new and innovative ways to utilize the multicellular marine algae. Here’s a sample of what I mean and why I think seaweed could play a significant part in our future…and now.

Biofuel

It’s no secret that the world needs new and better energy sources, and biofuel is one answer. We are already using beets and corn to produce ethanol, but such sources have several downsides, not least of which they take up valuable land that could be used to grow consumable food.

Seaweed could be an option. Numerous efforts are underway to find ways to transform seaweed into biofuel. One effort comes from Norwegian University of Science and Technology, where Khanh-Quant Tran, associate professor in the university’s Department of Energy and Process Engineering, developed a heating process that transforms sugar kelp (Laminaria saccharina) into biofuel.

Tran’s efforts resulted in 79 percent of the kelp biomass to be converted to bio-oil. This is in contrast to an earlier attempt in the United Kingdom in which experts yielded only 19 percent. So, will we be gassing up our cars with bio-fuel made from seaweed? Tran is seeking partners to continue his work and believes he can better the 79 percent yield. I for one wish him luck!

seaweed

Bacon

Recently, a team of researchers at Oregon State University reported on some work they have been doing for about 15 years with a new strain of dulse called Palmaria mollis. This seaweed, which grows rapidly and provides two times the nutritional value of kale, has just revealed one of its secrets: when cooked, it tastes like bacon.

Experts are already working on a variety of food uses for P. mollis, and believe me, the bacon option is on their mind. Given the popularity of bacon and bacon flavor, with its associated high calorie, high salt, and high fat content, a healthful alternative could be just what the doctor ordered. Plus, people who choose to avoid bacon for ethical or religious reasons could soon have a way to enjoy the bacon taste with the downsides. Kinda like fake meat!

Heart health

A United Kingdom team ferreted out some seaweed secrets when it announced that the algae is a super source of heart healthy food substances called bioactive peptides. Such peptides are found mainly in milk products, so seaweed could prove to be a great source for anyone who avoids milk-based foods, such as vegetarians and vegans.

How do these peptides help the heart? Like the bioactive substances found in milk, the seaweed peptides can help lower blood pressure in a way similar to that of ACE inhibitor drugs (e.g., captopril, enalapril, Lisinopril, losartan).

 

Obesity

Let’s unlock the seaweed secrets of how to fight obesity! Numerous studies have found that different seaweed varieties seem to be helpful in battling the overweight/obesity epidemic.

One review from 2012 examined the role of fucoxanthin, a carotenoid found in edible brown seaweeds. So far, experts have noted that “a diet rich in FX [fucoxanthin] could help to reduce body fat accumulation and to modulate blood glucose and insulin levels,” which means it can help with diabetes as well.

In a more recent (2015) study in rats, researchers compared the impact of two different seaweeds: Ulva ohnoi and Derbesia tenuissima. The rats’ high-fat, high-carb diets were supplemented with one or the other seaweed. Ulva ohnoi reduced total body fat mass by 24 percent and systolic blood pressure by 29 mmHg while D. tenuissima did not affect body fat mass but did reduce triglycerides by 38 percent and total cholesterol by 17 percent.

New medicines

Seaweed secrets include an ability to service humankind by providing substances that prove helpful in medicine. For example, a seaweed known as Japanese wireweed (Sargassum muticum), which is a menace along the British coastline, could be transformed into useful drugs. Experts at the University of Glasgow are working with IOTA Pharmaceuticals to uncover new uses for this algae. Currently, Japanese wireweed is used in traditional Chinese medicine for high cholesterol, skin conditions, and fever.

Other possible uses for seaweed in medicine include fucoidan, a component found in brown seaweed that has been shown to have anti-cancer activity. An extract from the brown seaweed Fucus vesiculosus has shown promise in fighting pancreatic cancer.

seaweed

Tackle world hunger

Dutch researchers are working to help banish world hunger by establishing seaweed farms. The University of Wageningen experts note the advantages of seaweed, including their high nutritional value (good sources of protein, carbs, starch, vitamins and minerals), the fact that they grow rapidly, and that they do not use up valuable land space. Such farms could be started around the world and produce critically needed food and food ingredients.

These six ideas do not represent all of the seaweed secrets, but an ocean of opportunity awaits us. I’m anxious to see the wonders that rise from the seas.

References

Atashrazm F et al. Fucoidan and cancer: a multifunctional molecule with anti-tumor potential. Marine Drugs 2015 Apr 14; 13(4): 2327-46

D’Orazio N et al. Fucoxantin: a treasure from the sea. Marine Drugs 2012 Mar; 10(3): 604-16

Fitzgerald C et al. Heart health peptides from macroalgae and their potential use in functional foods. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry 2011; 59(13): 6829-36.

Geisen U et al. Molecular mechanisms by which a Fucus vesiculosus extract mediates cell cycle inhibition and cell death in pancreatic cancer cells. Marine Drugs 2015 Jul 20; 13(7): 4470-91

Kumar SA et al. Seaweed supplements normalize metabolic, cardiovascular and liver responses in high-carbohydrate, high-fat fed rats. Marine Drugs 2015 Feb 2; 13(2): 788-805

ScienceDaily. Turning humble seaweed into biofuel

ScienceDaily. Seaweed menace may yield new medicines

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