According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of premature death globally. The good news is that we can try to keep such problems at bay by eating healthily to avoid obesity. This, though, might be easier said than done for many. After all, we are surrounded by fast food and other unhealthy temptations and live in a world where we often can be short on time or prone to emotional eating. One team of researchers is looking at an unusual fix for the problem: seaweed.
Gifts from the sea
Ole G. Mouritsen — professor of biophysics at the University of Southern Denmark — is the coauthor of a study published in the journal Phycologia which has taken a look at the current knowledge on the health effects of 35 different species of aquatic plant. In their article, the authors offer suggestions on how both individual consumers and the food industry can use seaweed to make everyday meals healthier.
Adopting an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em approach, the team suggests that adding seaweed to processed foods such as frozen pizzas, hot dogs and dried pasta may help reduce diseases associated with obesity. This can be achieved, they say, by replacing 5 percent of the flour in pizza dough with dried and granulated seaweed. "Certain substances in seaweed may be important for reducing cardiovascular diseases. We think this knowledge should be available for society and also be put to use," says Mouritsen.
Fighting the cravings
As unusual as turning to the tide for food might sound, certain seaweed species have a variety of health benefits. They contain, among other things, beneficial proteins, antioxidants, minerals, trace elements, dietary fiber and polyunsaturated fatty acids. In addition, the potassium salts in seaweed do not result in higher blood pressure — unlike the sodium salts that are typical in processed food.
Another important feature of seaweed is umami. This fifth basic kind of taste is already known to promote satiety and hence regulate food intake — in addition to reducing the craving for salt, sugar and fat. "It is difficult to determine how much seaweed a person should consume to benefit from its good qualities," says Mouritsen, "5-10 grams of dried seaweed per day is my estimate."
If you're starting to think this is about a hidden and nefarious vegetarian or vegan agenda that seeks to scrub the industry of all processed foods and feed you plates of nasty-looking seaweed, you're in deep water. What Mouritsen and the coauthors actually propose is that we add seaweed to our current fast food and in doing so making it healthier. It can, the researchers say, even enhance the flavor of the food. Dried and granulated seaweed, for example, can replace some of the flour when producing dry pasta, bread, pizza and snack bars. It's a pretty revolutionary idea — and perhaps more practical and realistic than the usual notion of encouraging people to keep processed foods to a minimum, if not avoid them altogether.
"We know that many people have difficulty distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy food. By adding seaweed to processed foods we can make food healthier," the authors say. "In many cases we also get tastier food, and it may also help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases." If processed food is still going to be around and people are going to eat it despite knowing how bad it is for us, it seems to make a good deal of sense to try to make it healthier.
A closer look at seaweed
Of course, we don't recommend you take a trip down to the beach and start harvesting your own any time soon. Seaweed has many different species that contain many different chemicals — not to mention pollutants — and not knowing what you're eating can obviously be dangerous. If seaweed is going to help us in the fight against cardiovascular disease, we should probably let the FDA guide us first. Always get your seaweed from a reputable source and make sure you understand what you're eating.