Waitrose’s Food and Drink report 2019/20 noted that more customers have been choosing ingredients from the sea, with searches for aonori seaweed up 127% and seaganism – a vegan diet that includes sustainable seafood – has been gaining a following. Sainsbury’s Future of Food Report said that seaweed “is fast gaining attention as an item for the diverse seafood menu”.
Dr Craig Rose, owner of Seaweed & Co., said that “beyond some Asian foods, consumers in the UK tend to think of seaweed as a bit of a weird food to eat and have concerns over how it may taste, despite increasingly recognising it’s health benefits”.
In the future, Rose predicted: “With improved consumer awareness of seaweeds’ benefits, and by incorporating seaweed into convenient and familiar products such as snacks, beverage and sauces in ways that taste good or do not impact flavour, the appeal and consumer demand for seaweed will increase.”
Iodine is an essential nutrient and a key component of thyroid hormones, which are vital for healthy growth, development and metabolism. The UK population is classified as mildly iodine insufficient, with pregnant women, women of child-bearing age and vegans being particularly at risk of low levels. A Lancet editorial described iodine as the ‘low-hanging fruit of public health’ in the UK the problem of insufficiency has been consistently overlooked.
Food Spark has previously highlighted seaweed as a rich source of iodine that is suitable for vegan and vegetarian populations. The recently published Vegan Eatwell Guide also notes iodine as a nutrient that deserves special attention, and suggests fortified milk alternatives with iodine or nori seaweed sheets in order to get adequate daily iodine.
Using seaweed, as a natural iodine source, could allow for up to six EU Approved Health Claims to be made on products around supporting normal thyroid health, metabolism, cognitive function, development in children, nervous system and skin.
Seaweed as a functional ingredient
Valuable components of seaweed can be extracted and used to improve the nutritional profile of food and drink products.
Protein content in seaweed varies widely between species, as does the digestibility (as estimated in vitro). Protein extracts from some seaweed may help optimise the protein digestibility and amino acid content for use in functional foods. Using seaweed as an alternative, sustainable protein source is gaining attention.
There is increasing interest in seaweed as a sustainable source of dietary fibre and the application of extracted fibre components from seaweed in food products. Fibres such as alginate (isolated from brown seaweeds) have long been used by the food industry whilst others, such as fucoidan, have recently been classified as a novel food. There are many more fibre extracts, such as xylan, laminarin and ulvan, that are yet to be approved by EFSA. The potential prebiotic effect of seaweed-derived fibre and the effect of fibre fermentation on human health is also an exciting area of research. However, human trials are needed to explore this further.
Micronutrients and polyphenols
Seaweed contains a variety of vitamins, minerals and polyphenols including iodine (mentioned above), vitamin D and B12 which could be very useful in improving levels of these nutrients in some people. Understanding the source and species is very important in knowing which seaweeds, of the over 10,000 species globally, can offer the specific nutrition that is sought. However, human studies on the bioavailability and activity of the nutrients in seaweeds are limited.
Seaweed can also be used to enhance the flavour and nutritional content of foods. Dried seaweed powder can be added to a variety of foods including baked goods, meat and fish products, soups and sauces to enhance flavour and reduce salt. If it’s just the nutritional benefits without the seaweed flavour that is preferred, then microencapsulation of the seaweed powder offers this.
Dr Rose commented: “We have specifically developed our PureSea® brand of seaweed ingredients in formats that allow for use in any food, beverage and nutritional applications so that flavour enhancement can be achieved, or even options with no flavour impact at all. Any PureSea® option provides all the nutritional, health and wellness messages, underpinned by independent research, associated with our seaweed.”
Seaweed is fast growing, abundant and can help alleviate environmental pressures, absorbing large amounts of carbon. The range of nutrients in seaweed and the beneficial extracted components from seaweed could be extremely useful for the food industry and appealing for consumers. However, more human studies need to be conducted on the nutritional benefits of seaweed and the health impact of extracted components. It’s an exciting area of research to watch.