Seaweed: the sexy new superfood

[Global] Did you like your sushi? Did you enjoy that generous helping of pond scum you had with it? Because if your maguro and your ebi were served with nori, or other varieties of seaweed so tastefully presented in the average Japanese restaurant, that’s exactly what you were eating.

Seaweed is more algae than plant, and some varieties are classified as bacteria. When we eat seaweed, we are eating something closer to pond scum than arugula.

That doesn’t stop it from being tasty and nutritious, as our ancestors have known for thousands of years. It’s now definitely back, if it was ever really away, as snacks, condiments and supplements. Seaweed is hot.

I remember my first Japanese meal, which featured a plate of o-nigiri and wakame miso soup. That first bite of the briny, salty nori parcels stuffed with rice and pickled ume or plums is still with me. Because nori was described as “seaweed,” I assumed I was eating an alimental aquatic plant, not some dank maritime coleslaw. The o-nigiri and succulent wakame tasted like the sea and the earth coming together to form a perfect culinary partnership—a primordial delicacy that has nourished mankind since the beginning of time.

Japan, where seaweed comprises more than 10 percent of the nation’s diet, consumes more than 21 types of seaweed, eight of them since the 8th century. Coastal communities around the world harvest seaweed, adding it to their salads, stir-fries, soups and drinks. In Wales, porphyra, a red algae related to nori, goes by the common name laver and is added to oats to make laverbread.

If you really want to know the origin of seaweed, things get complicated very quickly. According to northern California-based biologist Dr Jennifer Palladini, “Seaweed has no real scientific meaning, but loosely refers to large marine algae, which are mostly red and brown. Green algae are more like plants, but still not plants.”

Approximately 11,000 species of seaweed exist, and they belong to three kingdoms: Plantae, Chromista and Bacteria. More generically, they are classified as red, brown and green algae, with red and brown algae comprising the majority of edible varieties.

(Note from Algae World News: Seaweed belong to Kingdom Protista)

“The evolutionary relationships are not well-understood, but generally reds are closer to greens (and thus plants), while browns are less closely related to reds and are more like diatoms, belonging to a whole other kingdom,” explains Dr Palladini.

As scientists began to delve into the ecology and pharmacology of seaweed, they made some startling discoveries. Seaweed is high in protein and vitamins A, B, D and C. Seaweed is also a natural source of iodine, which is integral to thyroid health. Iodine is hard to come by, particularly in modern diets, or in inland and mountainous areas where seafood is not readily available. Iodine deficiencies can lead to goiter, or swelling of the thyroid gland in the neck.

Natural intake of iodine via seaweed has other benefits. It has also been linked to reduced rates of breast cancer among Japanese women, most of whom eat substantial amounts of seaweed and absorb iodine effectively.

There is substantial scientific evidence that seaweed contains one of nature’s first antioxidants. Antioxidants diffuse free radicals, molecules that can interfere with cellular function in the human body. Algae are also known to chelate, or bond, with heavy metals and prevent them from disrupting cellular function and contaminating the environment.

Once word got out that seaweed was beneficial to our health, people around the world demanded more. Since the 1970s, there has been an 8pc increase in demand per year for seaweed, not just in Asia but throughout the world. To satisfy demand, it became apparent that foraging was not enough. Seaweed must be farmed. Scientists were tasked with unlocking the secrets of seaweed’s reproductive cycle. This proved to be more difficult than first thought. Apparently, for being simple invertebrates, algae have remarkably complex sex lives, and fostering reproduction can be challenging.

“Red algae may have one of the most complicated sex lives on earth. Sexual reproduction can involve three distinct free-living phases, including two different spore-producing phases and a third phase that produces egg and sperm cells,” explains Dr Palladini.

Ultimately, science prevailed, and in subsequent decades innovative methodologies have been employed to farm seaweed around the world. Currently, 90pc of seaweed consumed by humans is harvested from aquaculture farms. The majority of these are nori, or porphyra, which are easier to seed and manage from reproduction to cultivation.

On April 30, 2015, NASA’s Goddard Space Center released satellite images of South Korea which reveal faint grid-like patterns along the country’s coastline. These are large tracts of ropes and nets holding several thousand tonnes of seaweed.

Is seaweed pond scum, lettuce, algae, bacteria or diatoms? It doesn’t really matter as long as you enjoy the flavour, and relish the benefits of this seaworthy fare.

 

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