How seaweed can help in the fight against heart disease

The food industry can help lower cardiovascular disease by adding a little algae to products

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 November, 2015, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 November, 2015, 9:00pm

How would you like some seaweed in that pizza, hot dog or pasta? Just a small addition of the algae to food could reduce cardiovascular disease, according to a new article published last week in the scientific journal Phycologia.

Ole G. Mouritsen, a professor of biophysics at the University of Southern Denmark, and colleagues reviewed existing knowledge on the health effects of 35 different seaweed species. In the article, they offer suggestions to how both individual consumers and the food industry can use seaweed to make everyday meals healthier.

For example, dried and granulated seaweed can replace some of the flour when producing food such as dry pasta, bread, pizza and snack bars – with as little as a 5 per cent replacement needed.

“We know that many people have difficulty distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy food. By adding seaweed to processed foods we can make food healthier. In many cases we also get tastier food, and it may also help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases,” the researchers say.

Seaweed covers a wide range of marine macroalgae which can be classified into three groups: brown algae (Phaeophyceae), green algae (Chlorophyta) and red algae (Rhodophyta).

Many seaweed species have a variety of health benefits. They contain, among other things, beneficial proteins, antioxidants, minerals, trace elements, dietary fibre and polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Previous research has shown that dietary fibre from brown algae boosts the sensation of satiety, thereby making people eat less and lose more weight. In another study, animal tests showed that brown seaweed contains a compound called fucoxanthin that appears to promote weight loss by reducing the accumulation of fat.

Seaweed salt, say the Danish researchers, is a healthier salt. Seaweed’s content of potassium salts does not lead to high blood pressure – unlike the sodium salts, typically encountered in the processed food.

Further, seaweed has umami – the fifth basic taste, which is known to promote satiety and hence regulate food intake in addition to reducing the craving for salt, sugar and fat.

Seaweed may be added to meat products to boost their dietary fibre and antioxidant levels.

“It is difficult to determine how much seaweed a person should consume to benefit from its good qualities. Five to 10 grams of dried seaweed per day is my estimate,” says Mouritsen, who has authored several books on seaweed as food.

In the article, the researchers describe a study in which a group of overweight but otherwise healthy men were asked to taste bread with added dried seaweed from the species Ascophyllum nosodum. The men’s reaction was that the bread tasted acceptable as long as the seaweed content was kept under 4 per cent.

By eating bread containing 4 per cent of dried seaweed the overweight men ingested more dietary fibre (4.5g more fibre per 100g) than when they ate the control wholemeal bread. Another effect was that they consumed 16.4 per cent less energy in the 24-hour period after eating the seaweed-enriched bread.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of premature death globally. Many of the pathologies leading to premature death from cardiovascular disease are preventable, such as avoiding obesity and eating healthy. But the responsibility should also be shared by society, Mouritsen argues.