Seaweed is well known as a little goldmine of goodness when it comes to our personal wellbeing and that of our planet. It has a high nutritional value, contains between 65 and 90% of protein, yet it’s hugely affordable and takes very little resource to be grown and harvested – unlike red meat and many other protein sources.
All seaweeds need sunlight to survive, so they tend to grow only at the edges of the oceans, on rocks or just below the high water mark. Scientists have discovered over 12,000 species, over 200 of which have commercial value. These include brown seaweeds found in underwater kelp forests, red algaes often used for nori in sushi rolls, and microscopic blue-green algaes popular in marine-based beauty creams.
Strands of seaweed have also been used to make plastic-free packaging and containers to save on plastics – read more here and here. Indeed, seaweed could be the next plastic – it’s cheap to produce because it is cultivated offshore, it grows quickly, and it doesn’t require fresh water or chemicals to grow successfully. Seaweed beds are also natural carbon sinks that de-acidify water. That said, like many ocean plants as well as fish, seaweed does get suffocated by plastic pollution, which can limit growth and spread bacteria – which people then eat. Even more reason why it’s so paramount we protect our oceans.
Many edible seaweeds, such as wakame, laver, dulse and sea lettuce, otherwise known as sea vegetables, are superfoods rich in vitamins and minerals including provide potassium, iodine and other trace elements. They are high in soluble fibre, low in fat and full of omega-3 fatty acids, and their anti-inflammatory and anti-ageing properties can help keep skin radiant and treat acne and rosacea too.
Cooking seaweed is surprisingly easy, and it works well in many dishes as a seasoning or main ingredient. Sheets of boiled kelp (or kombu as it’s called in Japan) can replace pasta in a vegetable or spinach lasagne, for example, or try making kombu dashi, a Japanese stock that will add a delicious savoury tang to soups and stews. It’s fun to forage yourself for fresh edible seaweeds, though do gen up on what’s good to eat and what’s not. Read more here, while for 25 delicious seaweed recipes, take a look at Well and Good.
Foodies who might baulk at the idea of seaweed replacing red meat as a main source of protein might be surprised to hear that, in 2015, researchers at Oregon State University grew a strain of seaweed that tastes like bacon when it’s fried. Not only is it delicious, researchers found, but the patented strain of seaweed has twice the nutritional value of kale and delighted the vegan and vegetarian food industries.
The planet needs seaweed, for it plays a key role in aquatic ecosystems. Though it’s an algae, it looks more like a plant, and breathes by photosynthesizing carbon dioxide to oxygen, just as terrestrial plants do. Marine animals depend on this oxygen, as well as on the seaweeds themselves, which are an important part of the food chain. According to researchers, roughly 70% of oxygen in the world is produced by species including phytoplankton, kelp and algal plankton, while rainforests make up 28% of oxygen production and 2% comes from other sources. And because seaweed absorbs CO2, systems are being developed that feed CO2 to algae directly from industrial emitters – a form of carbon capture.
Eating and harvesting more seaweed could also potentially help reduce the pressure on our depleting fish stocks and contribute to global food security. But only if we are careful. According to a new report published by business analysis group Allied Market Research, the global seaweed market was valued at $4.1 billion in 2017 and is projected to reach $9.1 billion by 2024. And such increasingly varied demand could lead to overexploitation of wild seaweed and subsequent problems, as The Marine Stewardship Council has recently pointed out.
‘Removing too much of it could lead to coastal erosion, negative impacts on marine food webs and habitats, loss of biodiversity and decreased water quality,’ the MSC says. ‘Environmental impacts from irresponsible aquaculture could include water pollution, damage to local ecosystems and the decline of wild stocks too’.
To protect this vital resource, and the marine life that depends on it, we need to clean and protect our oceans, learn from commercial fisheries and aquaculture, and trust third party certification to ensure the long-term sustainability of the industry. Help is at hand, for the MSC now has its own standard for seaweed harvesting and farming practices, and in January of this year (2019) Euglena Co became the first seaweed operation in the world to gain certification for its seaweed production. Euglena is a type of microscopic algae used in nutritional supplements, but owner Mitsuru Izumo has big plans for the future, including using it to make sustainable jet fuel (read more here). The future looks bright for seaweed – as long as its approached with intelligence.