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Discover the millennia-old food of the future, edible seaweeds

Some already love and consume them regularly, some still approach them with a little caution, associating them exclusively with exotic and bizarre habits; others tolerate them with sushi and some would not even imagine being able to introduce them into their diet. Yet, according to many experts and nutritionists, seaweeds are going to be one of the leading foods in the coming years.

We would like to clarify, and perhaps intrigue the most traditional palates, on the enormous versatility seaweeds have in the food industry

In fact, already in 1974, during a World Food Conference, the UN defined as "food of the future" the alga spirulina, unanimously considered a food with excellent nutritional properties, including it in the list of the famous "superfood" and integrated into the diet of astronauts.

Although most people consider them as a food derived only from the East, also in Europe seaweeds have been cooked and eaten since ancient times, especially in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Scandinavia, Iceland, as well as in northern Canada. Nonetheless, seaweeds are making a comeback to Western cuisine, thanks to its popularity in Asian cuisine.

From the East with a vengeance, the return of edible seaweed
It is worth remembering that there are over 20,000 different species of seaweeds, half of which are edible. Seaweeds' recognisable characteristics include colour (green, brown, red, blue and yellow) and size, so much so that we often hear of micro and macro algae, each with distinctive organoleptic characteristics and properties.

Edible seaweeds, what a passion

Edible seaweeds are an important source of proteins, carbohydrates, mineral salts, trace elements (iodine, but also calcium, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, selenium, sodium and zinc) and vitamins (in particular vitamins A, C, K and those of group B, including the very rare B12). They are low in fats and in sugar, so do not add excessive calories to the diet.

It has also been discovered that they are one of the vegetable alternatives with the biggest amount of omega 3, fatty acids essential for the proper functioning of our body and to combat cardiovascular diseases. As competitors of fish, they may even be a better eco-friendly solution: just think that herrings, anchovies and other fish accumulate omega-3 acquiring them from the micro algae, which in turn produces it.

Endless uses for an infinity of algae
In recent years, more and more start-ups are emerging with the aim of using seaweeds for commercial purposes, to exploit a rapidly expanding market, especially in the food and cosmetics sector. Furthermore, many research projects are moving in this field, given the interest of scholars to discover the many ways in which you can use seaweeds in the pharmaceutical, energy and biofuel sectors.

The benefits of edible seaweeds

The benefits of seaweeds should be discussed at length. Already in the first century AD, Latin writer Pliny the Elder and Greek doctor Dioscorides Pedanius recommended the consumption of seaweeds for therapeutic purposes, as a remedy to treat gout, rashes, intestinal and liver disorders.
Kelp algae can grow up to 30 meters long!
More recent studies have highlighted the importance of integrating seaweeds into a healthy and functional diet for many other reasons, including:

  • Proper thyroid function and stimulus to metabolism
  • Prevention for cardiovascular health
  • Defence against cholesterol, chronic degenerative diseases and the onset of tumours (in particular in the colon)
  • Purification action and reactivation of circulation
  • Increased immune defences
  • Strengthening and growth of bones, teeth, hair and nails.
Omega-3 literally taken from the source
The benefits of using seaweeds are therefore numerous, just as their uses in the kitchen. Learning to know the main varieties of edible sea vegetables on the market and the way in which to use them can be useful and interesting also to give a little more to our traditional dishes.

Lots of seaweeds, lots of flavours

You can chop seaweeds in pieces to salt the water of the pasta or to make broths necessary to cook other foods, thus ensuring the intake of all the nutrients with which they are rich.

Seaweeds' taste can vary a lot: some are sweeter, others are characterised by a spicy taste; in general, however, all are useful as flavour enhancers.

Otherwise, seaweeds can be also used as an ingredient to classic mixed salads, or else you can dry or bake them into tasty and healthy snacks; they enrich the flavour juices and smoothies; they can wrap up rolls and meatloaves. Finally, you can use sea vegetables to decorate many dishes.
Algae crackers, less fat, more protein, infinite energy
As mentioned above, the variety of edible seaweed is really impressive. However, some have gained notoriety over time, becoming a staple on the shelves of certain green stores and supermarkets, as well as very easy to find in the menus of local and ethnic restaurants.

Among the so-called macro-algae, nori is undoubtedly the best known, especially among lovers of Japanese cuisine: it is in fact the main ingredient of maki, used either as outer(e.g. hosomaki, futomaki, temaki) or inner (uramaki) wrapping. Very rich in protein, up to 50% of its weight, it has a delicate taste, is very versatile and easily workable.

If you've ever been to a Japanese restaurant, you've already recognized its flavour
The kelp seaweed, whose edible part is known as kombu, is a brown alga with very large dimensions (it can exceed 30 meters in length and grows very quickly), rich in iodine and therefore useful for the functioning of the thyroid gland and the regulation of metabolism. It can be used in the preparation of vegetable broths or soups, or during the cooking of legumes, to make them more digestible. In 1908, a chemistry professor from Tokyo, thanks to studies carried out on seaweeds broth and kombu in particular, succeeded in isolating monosodium glutamate and recognising it as responsible for umami, the so-called fifth fundamental taste, alongside bitter, acid, sweet and salty.

Third in Japan in order of popularity and fundamental ingredient of the traditional miso soup or goma wakame salad, wakame seaweeds belong to the brown algae family. They are a particularly beneficial food for women, thanks to the high content of vegetable calcium and magnesium, which combat osteoporosis, and their diuretic properties, which counteract the accretion of liquids.

Always useful for women, especially for those who have an iron deficiency or during the menstrual cycle, the dulse is a red seaweed, used mainly in Ireland and Iceland. As its particular feature, it enhances the flavour of the food it gives them a spicy taste.

The hijiki is a brown alga rich in calcium that goes well with the taste of many vegetables and is the main responsible for, according to the Japanese, their beautiful glossy hair.

Arame seaweed is excellent for sports people, because its potassium content reduces the risk of muscle cramps, and has a sweet taste that makes it suitable for those who approach edible seaweeds for the first time.

Kanten, on the other hand, is mainly used for its gelling power: its extracts are in fact at the base of agar-agar, a vegetable gelling agent typically used in vegan cooking instead of animal preparations.

As far as micro-algae are concerned, we cannot but cite the already mentioned spirulina and chlorella, which, due to their richness in proteins and essential amino acids, minerals and vitamins they contain, are used as food supplements with prodigious properties.

Spirulina algae is an excellent supplement
According to United Nations projections, in 2050 the world population will reach almost 9 billion people: such a population growth can be welcomed and supported only thanks to new technologies and eating habits. This is why, with a view to sustainability and nutrition, edible seaweeds, which have their roots in ancient times, are an ideal solution to take us straight into the future.

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