Imagine for a moment a fully sustainable food product with no land, animal, or lab requirements. This may seem impossible yet it does exist in the form of seaweed. Each and every year, up to 5 billion tonnes of these algae are harvested as food yet this number only represents a small amount of what is available on Earth.
The history of seaweed at the dinner table is longstanding. Back in 600 BC, a Chinese author once stated, "Some algae are a delicacy fit for the most honoured guests, even for the King himself." Back then, these water grasses were considered to be a delicacy rather than a source of healthy nutrients. Perhaps because of this limited perspective on health, these plants were only eaten regularly in seaside areas.
The change in view started only about a few decades ago when seaweeds were investigated as a possible source of fibre to help control the increasing rate of chronic digestive, metabolic, and cardiovascular diseases. Only a few of the thousands of species were tested but they all revealed a significant amount of fibre was present. The results suggested dietary algae may play a much larger role in health than otherwise believed.
With the fibre question answered, other researchers went on to look at seaweed to determine if there were any other health benefits in seaweed. Over the coming years, researchers determined the nutritional value. Some even took the investigations further, linking them to cardiovascular health. As a whole, the delicacy proved to be quite beneficial to health.
But while these examinations offered nutritional perspectives, from a purely health-related viewpoint, there were still questions. After all, fibre and nutrients can only do so much; there had to be more to the story. Before seaweed could become super, researchers had to find the molecules responsible, the so-called bioactives.
By 2011, a number of these bioactives were found and their functions understood. Some of these chemicals were known, such as polyunsaturated fats and antioxidants. But others were new and in some cases practically unpronounceable. Take for example, phlorofucofuroeckol-B, which may help prevent allergies and dixinodehydroeckol, which may help to prevent cancer.
But among the various bioactives, none has gained as much attention as the sulfated polysaccharides. These chains of sugar molecules containing the element sulfur are not new, however. They are used in a variety of industries including biotechnology, cosmetics and even food in the form of the preservative carrageenan. Studies have shown these molecules have a variety of effects ranging from anti-inflammatory activity to the prevention of UV-related aging. They also are great sources of energy for friendly microbes in the form of prebiotics.
With all the potential benefits, seaweed may seem like the perfect food for our health. Indeed it may be. But to make it a true superfood, there is still something missing. Despite the claims, the mechanisms at the molecular and cellular level have not been fully detailed. While one may be able to say a particular benefit is presumable, without some form of justification, there is simply an allegation without proof.
That may change thanks to a recent review by a group of Irish researchers. The team performed an exhaustive analysis of the nutritional and bioactive components in seaweed and then added exactly how each one my improve health. The overall result may be what this still untapped food resource needs to go from delicacy to superfood.
The focus of the review was chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and allergies. In each of these sections, the authors detail how one or more bioactives can either help to prevent or even treat these conditions. In many cases, the mechanisms are complex and take into account several human bodily systems such as metabolism, immunity, and cardiovascular homeostasis. However, each mechanism is complete allowing for public health officials to understand the benefits to the finest detail.
The authors insist that more research needs to be accomplished. The mechanisms are for the most part known as a result of lab-based and in some cases animal studies. To gain the approval of the medical community, clinical trials needs to be performed and significant outcomes needs to be realized. However, that will take time as many of these benefits will require studies lasting years if not decades.
This last requirement may delay the ascension of seaweed to bona fide superfood. Yet, considering the levels of chronic disease in the developing world including Canada, the advent of seaweed as a new food fad may come sooner than later. After all, it's healthy, abundant, relatively inexpensive, and once you get used to the taste, can be a rather enjoyable snack. All that's needed is to find it in your local grocery store and give it a try.
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