Seaweeds have an ancient lineage on our planet. They were among the first multicellular organisms, here before even the jellyfish and the dinosaurs. They have survived for millennia in all manner of challenging environments, coping at times with hot sun, high-light levels, temperature extremes, ice and hungry sea creatures. Much of their coping mechanism evolved through the production of bioactive secondary metabolites, many with robust antioxidant activity, as well as protective compounds unique to seaweeds, belonging to a broad range of sulphated polysaccharides.

There's algae and then there's algae

Algae is really an umbrella term for seaweeds, which are macroalgae, and for microalgae, which are single-celled organisms. Seaweed species fall under a sub classification as brown, red or green. Chondrus crispus, for example, is a classification of red seaweed that has been harvested and used for its carrageenan or gelling and stabilising properties in everything from toothpaste to ice cream to face creams and beyond. There are many other species including Ascophyllum nodosum that is a brown variety, found only in the North Atlantic ocean and is the most researched and tested seaweed on the planet. It is used across a wide variety of human and animal product applications in soluble extracts as well as pure, raw formats.

A multitude of benefits

The power of marine plants has been drawn upon for thousands of years for their ability to prolong life, prevent disease, and impart health and wellness. Worldwide research on their unique benefits is continuously being conducted, and brown marine plants have been found to be highly beneficial, followed by the red and then green seaweeds.

Nutritionally, seaweeds typically contain all the essential nutrients required for human health and wellness, with the exception of adequate calories. They are the precursors to land plants, and are an excellent source of protein, macronutrients, vitamins, minerals and fibre. Because of this, seaweed is increasingly understood to be and referred to as a 'superfood' in articles and on packaging.

The entire range of vitamins is represented in marine plants and this provides a very rich cocktail. The principal vitamins are provitamin A in the form of s-carotene and of ∂-carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E. The group B vitamins are also generally well represented. Of particular interest is the presence of the vitamin B12 in certain seaweeds, which is absent in terrestrial plants.

Marine plants derive a wealth of minerals from the ocean. The mineral content covers a wide range of macro elements such as phosphorus, potassium, calcium, chlorine, magnesium, sulphur and sodium. Marine plants also contain essential trace elements required to prevent vitamin deficiencies, including iodine and calcium, both of which are implicated in vitamin deficiencies prevalent in the world population.

What's old is new

Seaweed is not new to the health and wellness market – in nutraceutical supplements and health food use – but a couple of significant trends have created renewed interest. Consumer demand has been increasing for 'natural ingredients' for both internal and external human applications. These have driven changes with food and cosmetics formulators who are increasingly motivated to reach 'clean label' objectives involving fewer and natural ingredients. The awareness of seaweed as a natural and healthier sodium substitute is just one of the simpler examples.

Today's increasingly eco-conscious consumer is driving other trends including sourcing products that are renewable and sustainably harvested. Consumers are increasingly being diagnosed with allergies or sensitivities to certain ingredients or are choosing alternative protein choices, which results in an increasing demand for products that are gluten-free and vegan. Seaweeds fit perfectly into all these categories.

The explosion of social media, and food shows and channels have all contributed to this 'new look at an old product'. Seaweed cookbooks and cooking classes, and the entry of seaweed-based snack foods are just a few of the examples of how high-quality marine ingredients offer clean, safe and nutritionally consistent solutions.