While it might not seem appetizing at first glance, seaweed and seaweed derivatives are an essential aspect of the modern diet. For good reason, too.
As demand for variety and improved nutrition profiles in processed foods is met with increasingly globalized needs for long-lasting, shelf-stable foods, scientists now more than ever are relying on new applications of ancient ingredients to create sustainable, replicable and predictable results in food production and preservation. Carrageenan, a naturally derived seaweed extract that has been used in home kitchens for hundreds of years, was first introduced commercially as a stabilizer for milk products sent to American troops overseas about 70 years ago.
Seaweed? In my ice cream?
Here’s a sampling of information you might not know off the top of your head about the fascinating world of seaweed foods:
- Most of the world’s oxygen is not from trees, but rather from seaweeds and other algae. Farming this crop builds biodiversity and ensures that this valuable resource will stick around for generations to come.
- In their unrefined form, seaweeds are thought to be the single most nutritious foods that you can eat. Because they assimilate minerals directly from the sea, many unprocessed seaweeds contain more protein than meat and more calcium than milk.
- Similarly, when the seaweed extract carrageenan is included in beverages, it helps ensure healthful and efficient use of protein by evenly distributing and uniformly suspending these same high-demand nutrients—making it a healthy addition at all levels of consumption.
Non-synthetic, chemically produced additives like gellan gum are not harvested and derived from natural ingredients like seaweed, but instead are produced by bacterial fermentation in lab settings. While the bacteria responsible for creating these reactions, Sphingomonas elodea, are technically found in nature, you won’t find it growing on a farm or in the ocean like seaweed. Rather, the gellan gum derivative is actually commonly found in environments contaminated with toxic compounds, where it has been shown to use the contaminants as nourishment. Some species of this bacteria can also cause infections in humans that may require antibiotics—something most folks try to avoid.
Gellan gum was discovered about 30 years after seaweeds had been successfully used in commercial food—and as such, much less is known about its effects on the body. In fact, most studies have shown that gums in general can be a problem for those with digestive issues simply because their chemical compound is made up of mostly indigestible byproducts that do not come from food.
So just because on first glance seaweed does not sound like it has a place in your foods, that does not mean that its use is a bad thing. On the contrary: The creative use of sustainable, healthy and wholesome seaweed extracts is just one of the things keeping society’s food supply moving forward toward globalization, perfect nutrition and great taste.