Seaweed turns cash crop as new products hit market

KOCHI: Different types of seaweed present along the Indian shores are slowly acquiring the status of a cash crop, as products made from them are finding more takers.

Currently, these algae are used mainly… to make agar and carrageenan – substances used as gel or thickening agents in food processing industry.

Though over 1.3 lakh tonne commercially important seaweeds are present along the Indian coast, only a small share of it is exploited on an industrial scale. Scientists say the production of nutraceuticals and health drinks from these algae could be a game changer, taking India to the string of prominent countries that are manufacturing different products from the seaweed, in the years to come.

It was Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) based in Kochi that developed a nutraceutical green algal extract (GAe) useful in preventing joint pain and arthritis. Says Dr KK Vijayan, head of marine biotechnology division of CMFRI, who led the team that developed the product: “Unlike other products used against the disease, GAe has no side effects , is 100% natural and provides long-term benefit.” The product has received encouraging response. “So far we have sold 1.6 lakh bottles starting from January. We are getting lots of orders online with the monsoon getting active, particularly from South India. The rainy season usually triggers joint pains,” says Dr Mathur, general manager of Celestial Biolab in Hyderabad, which markets the product. The company is in the process of expanding its distribution network.

The Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCR) in Gujarat has developed a health drink from red seaweed, which is expected to improve brain functioning and strengthen immunity. The product has already bagged US patent. “It is rich in micronutrients, particularly iodine and potassium. We have tested it on poultry with excellent results. We are awaiting funds for further trial on animals and humans,” says scientist Dr Arup Ghosh.

The institute did filtration on the product to remove the fishy odour seaweeds have, to make it more palatable. “Now it smells like coconut water,” adds Dr Ghosh. The biggest advantage is that the drink comes cheap costing hardly.

Rs 15 per litre to boost the brain activity. The byproduct from filteration has been made into a biofertiliser.

Wild seaweed growth in India is concentrated mostly in coasts of south Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Lakshdweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Offshore farming of seaweed has gained momentum in the recent years. In India, mariculture of seaweeds until 1990 did not flourish as profit was low for farmers because of low yield and gel strength of agar.

Of late, cultivation of an exotic variety Kappaphycus alvarezii has started in open sea by Pepsi Foods with buy-back arrangement with farmers, says Dr Kaladharan, principal scientist of CMFRI. “Asian countries are the largest producers of seaweed with China leading the pack,” he adds.


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