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Seaweed touted as solution to making junk food healthier — but wild claims not backed up

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IMAGE: This image shows a serving of seaweed crackers. view more

Credit: Birgitte Svennevig/SDU

Adding seaweed to processed foods such as frozen pizzas, hot dogs and dried pasta will reduce cardiovascular diseases, concludes a new scientific article. One suggestion is to replace 5% of the flour in pizza dough with dried and granulated seaweed.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of premature death globally. Ironically, many of the pathologies leading to premature death from cardiovascular diseases are not only widespread, but they are preventable.

One way to prevent cardiovascular diseases is to avoid obesity and eat healthy, leaving the responsibility with the individual consumer.

But the responsibility should also be shared by society, argues University of Southern Denmark professor of biophysics, Ole G. Mouritsen, who has authored several books on seaweed as food.

Professor Mouritsen is the co-author of an article in the journal Phycologia reviewing existing knowledge on the health effects of 35 different seaweed species.

In the article the authors offer suggestions to how both individual consumers and the food industry can use seaweed to make our everyday meals healthier.

“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.

Seaweed salt is healthier salt

Many 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.

Seaweed’s content of potassium salts does not led to high blood pressure – unlike the sodium salts, typically encountered in the processed food.

An important feature is also that the seaweed has umami – the fifth basic taste, which is known to promote satiety and hence regulate food intake in addition to reduce 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. 5-10 grams of dried seaweed per day is my estimate”, says Professor Mouritsen.

He and the co-authors suggest that seaweed should be added fast food, thus making this type of food healthier. It can even enhance the flavor of the food, they argue. For example, dried and granulated seaweed can replace some of the flour when producing dry pasta, bread, pizza, snack bars, etc.

Seaweed is also good in meat products

It is also possible to add seaweed to meat products and thereby provide the consumer with an increased intake of dietary fiber and antioxidants – or maybe the aim is lower cholesterol levels.

In the article Professor Mouritsen and his co-authors 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%.

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

“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 authors believe.

HOW TO GET THE HEALTH BENEFITS FROM SEAWEED

  • Seaweed contains only few calories, but is still rich in rich in essential amino acids, dietary fibers, minerals, trace elements, vitamins and polyunsaturated fats.
  • You can easily add up to 5% dried seaweed to a dough without losing its ability to raise.
  • Dried seaweed can be stored for months or years without loss of flavor and nutritional value.
  • Dried seaweed can be added to food as powder, granulate or pieces in pastries, egg dishes, mashed potatoes, dressings, or sprinkled on vegetables or fish dishes.
  • Powders and granulates can be used as a salt substitute.
  • Hijiki contains arsenic, which is carcinogenic and therefore some national food authorities recommend that you do not eat it. Despite these warnings, you can buy dried hijiki in many stores.
  • Some species may contain large amounts of iodine.
  • Never eat seaweed that is washed up on the beach.

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Contact Professor Ole G. Mouritsen, head of Centre for Biomembrane Physics (MEMPHYS) at University of Southern Denmark, head of center Taste For Life, President of the Danish Academy of Gastronomy. E-mail: ogm@memphys.sdu.dk. Tel: + 45 6550 3528.

Ref Cornish, Critchley & Mouritsen. A role for dietary macroalgae in the ameliorating ration of certainement Risk Factors Associated with cardiovascular disease. Phycologia 54, 649-666 (2015). November 16, 2015.

Photo: Serving of seaweed crackers (Birgitte Svennevig/SDU).

Food industry can help lower cardiovascular diseases by adding little seaweed to products

Our Review Summary

seaweedThis release describes what is apparently a summary of studies related to 35 different types of seaweed and their purported health benefits. Only one study is glancingly referenced, and no real, quantitative evidence is presented to back up any of the claims. A single source — the author of books promoting seaweed as a healthier eating option — is quoted, repeatedly. No counter arguments are caveats are raised, other than the overall idea that it is difficult to nail down the health benefits of seaweed. Precisely! Which is why we wonder why this news release was issued at all.

 

Why This Matters

The poor quality of the American diet, and its contribution to a litany of health problems, is well documented. But the idea that adding seaweed to unhealthy foods is going to make a dent in this problem is dubious. And this release doesn’t give us any reason to think otherwise.

Criteria

Does the news release adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There is no discussion of costs in this piece. This is odd for two reasons: 1. Seaweed of certain varieties is readily available in grocery stores and a staple of sushi bars and other restaurants. 2. The authors are advocating that seaweed become a regular part of baking and cooking, which means that costs need to be considered.

Does the news release adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

There are no actual quantifications of benefits in this release. It says that, “By eating bread containing 4% of dried seaweed the overweight men ingested more dietary fiber (4.5 g more fiber per. 100 g) than when they ate the control whole-meal bread. Another effect was that they consumed 16.4% less energy in the 24 hour period after eating the seaweed enriched bread.” Honestly, we have no idea what this means. Is 4.5 grams more fiber meaningful? Does it have any measurable health impact? Does consuming less energy during a 24-hour period lead to positive health benefits or negative? There’s no help in interpreting this information.

Does the news release adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There are some vague references to harms in a list of bullet points at the end of the release. We do not think this satisfies the criteria but, instead, creates more confusion. It says:

  • Hijiki contains arsenic, which is carcinogenic and therefore some national food authorities recommend that you do not eat it. Despite these warnings, you can buy dried hijiki in many stores.
  • Some species may contain large amounts of iodine.
  • Never eat seaweed that is washed up on the beach

What is one to make of that?

Does the news release seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

There’s very little information provided about any of these studies or the study of the studies purportedly undertaken. What type of studies were these? How many people were involved? Were there any limitations? etc.

Does the news release commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

The release does not engage in any disease mongering.

Does the news release identify funding sources & disclose conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

The only clue as to why this news release was written comes when it says that the author of the study in question “has authored several books on seaweed as food.” This seems to be promotional material for his books and little more.

Does the news release compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

No alternatives are discussed. In fact, why not simply talk about less salt instead of salt substitutes. The seaweed being added is at such a marginal percentage as to beg the question: why bother?

Does the news release establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

We are going to assume here that most people think seaweed is widely available as a food product.

Does the news release establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The idea of adding “healthier” ingredients to processed foods to make them better is not new (e.g. fiber, vitamins, potassium, “healthy” oils) and hasn’t produced much if any tangible benefit. Why will seaweed be any different? Many wild claims are made in this release. None are backed up.

Does the news release include unjustifiable, sensational language, including in the quotes of researchers?

Not Satisfactory

Let’s start with the headline:

“Food industry can help lower cardiovascular diseases by adding little seaweed to products.”

There is no evidence presented in this news release to support this statement. Nor this one:

“Seaweed’s content of potassium salts does not led to high blood pressure – unlike the sodium salts, typically encountered in the processed food.”

Total Score: 3 of 10 Satisfactory

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