Dulse, a type of red seaweed with a chewy texture that’s often used in dried, flaked form, has been harvested for centuries in Europe. But this sea vegetable, which typically grows along the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines, has remained in relative obscurity in the US – until now.
Researchers from Oregon State University (OSU) were on a mission to develop a new food source for abalone – sea snails that are popular cuisine in Asia. Dulse, rich in proteins, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, turned out to be perfect for this – but while growing the red plant, the researchers had an idea – why not feed dulse to people too?
It might have been a hard sell in the US, where seaweed is typically consumed only with sushi or miso soup… and, to a greater extent, by some of those in the vegan and vegetarian communities.
The strain of dulse being grown in Oregon, however, is unique. It’s so unique that the research team is working on a marketing plan to develop a new line of seaweed-based specialty foods. Oregon State researcher Chris Langdon explained:
“This stuff is pretty amazing… When you fry it, which I have done, it tastes like bacon, not seaweed. And it’s a pretty strong bacon flavor.”
Seaweed Can Take on a Meaty Flavor Due to Umami
Seaweed that tastes naturally like bacon could draw in a whole new crowd of people looking to add nutrition and flavor to their diets. While it may seem surprising that a sea vegetable could take on a meaty flavor, seaweed imparts a strong umami flavor into virtually any dish it touches.
It was more than 100 years ago when a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda discovered the secret that made dashi, a classic seaweed soup, so delicious. It was glutamic acid, which, in your body is often found as glutamate.
Ikeda called this new flavor “umami,” which means “delicious” in Japanese, but it wasn’t until 2002 that modern-day scientists confirmed umami to be a fifth taste, along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.
Most foods contain glutamate, although some more than others. Foods naturally high in glutamate include protein-rich meat, eggs, poultry, milk, cheese, and fish, along with sea vegetables, ripe tomatoes, and mushrooms.
Umami is valued for making foods taste better. When an umami-rich food like seaweed is added to soup stock, for instance, it makes the broth heartier, more “meaty,” and more satisfying.
Is Bacon-Flavored Seaweed the Next Superfood?
Seaweed is an excellent source of iodine, vitamins, and minerals, provided it comes from clean, non-polluted waters. Various types of seaweed and brown algae also support detoxification and may also help prevent your body from absorbing heavy metals and other environmental toxins.
Research also suggests that brown seaweed may help boost fat-burning in your body while dulse is said to have twice the nutritional value of kale and can contain up to 16 percent protein by dry weight. Needless to say, this patented bacon-flavored variety could easily take the superfood market by storm.
Adding to its allure, Chris Langdon, an aquaculture researcher at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, and colleagues have created a way to farm the seaweed, growing it in huge vats of cold seawater.
This cultured dulse grows faster than wild dulse, and the water could potentially be filtered to minimize the uptake of contaminants. Wild-grown dulse is expensive, selling for up to $90 a pound, but the farmed version is more affordable (not to mention could theoretically be made much more widely available).
Bacon-Flavored Seaweed Salad Dressing and More May Soon Be on the Market…
Langdon currently grows about 30 pounds of the bacon-flavored dulse strain a week, although he has plans to more than triple production. The researchers have also teamed up with OSU’s Food Innovations Center in Portland, Oregon to explore ways to use dulse in cooking. As OSU reported:
“[Jason Ball, a research chef at the Food Innovation Center in Portland]… is pushing the envelope, testing dulse veggie burgers, trail mix, and even dulse beer. Working directly with Langdon, Ball can experiment with different strains that have different flavors and attributes.
With fresh dulse, he’s looking for a tender chewiness and slightly salty finish. ‘Pan-fried,’ he says, ‘dulse can be light and crispy with a savory saltiness, like bacon.’”
About 14 prototype recipes have already been created using the unique dulse, including salad dressing, sesame seed chips, and smoked dulse popcorn peanut brittle.
Seaweed’s Claim to Fame? Iodine!
Worldwide, it’s thought that up to 40 percent of the population is at risk of iodine deficiency. In the US, however, agencies tend to say most people are iodine “sufficient,” meaning they get enough of the nutrient from their diet.
This is controversial, though, as according to other sources, such as Dr. David Brownstein, who has been working with iodine for the last two decades, over 95 percent of the patients in his clinic are iodine deficient.
Dr. Jorge Flechas, MD also believes severe iodine deficiency is rampant and believes the current US daily recommended allowance (RDA) for iodine may be completely insufficient for overall physical health and prevention of diseases such as thyroid disease, fibromyalgia, and cancer.
Iodine is a vitally important nutrient that is detected in every organ and tissue. Along with being essential for healthy thyroid function and efficient metabolism, there is increasing evidence that low iodine is related to numerous diseases, including cancer. Other tissues also absorb and use large amounts of iodine, including:
|Breasts||Salivary glands||Pancreas||Cerebral spinal fluid|
Iodine deficiency, or insufficiency, in any of these tissues will lead to dysfunction of that tissue. Hence the following symptoms could provide clues that you’re not getting enough iodine in your diet. For example, iodine deficiency in:
- Salivary glands: inability to produce saliva, producing dry mouth
- Skin: dry skin, and lack of sweating. Three to four weeks of iodine supplementation will typically reverse this symptom, allowing your body to sweat normally again
- Brain: reduced alertness and lowered IQ
- Muscles: nodules, scar tissue, pain, fibrosis, and fibromyalgia
Iodine actually induces apoptosis as well, meaning it causes cancer cells to self-destruct. Dr. Flechas is adamant that absence of iodine in a cell is what causes cancer.
The jury is still out on whether iodine in supplemental form is safe (especially at higher doses). As an alternative, toxin-free sea vegetables (and spirulina), which are naturally iodine rich, are likely the ideal natural sources from which to obtain your iodine — as long as you make sure that these are harvested from uncontaminated waters.
Why Else Is Seaweed Good for You?
Natural iodine aside, there are many other reasons to include sea vegetables in your diet as well. It’s a rich source of potassium, calcium, and iron, for instance. Seaweed also contains alginic acid, which protects the plants from bacteria but has the action of binding to heavy metals when you eat them. This means sea vegetables are natural detoxifiers.
There’s even research showing a kelp-containing diet helped lower levels of the sex hormone estradiol in rates, which suggests it may help lower the risk of estrogen-related cancers, such as breast cancer, in humans. In addition to the familiar nutrients like iron and vitamin C, seaweed also contains a number of unique vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that many Americans don’t eat much of. As noted by the George Mateljan Foundation:
“As part of their natural defense mechanisms, sea vegetables contain a variety of enzymes called haloperoxidases. These enzymes all require vanadium in order to function. Although this mineral is not as well known as some of the other mineral nutrients, it appears to play a multi-faceted role in regulation of carbohydrate metabolism and blood sugar.
… [V]anadium may help to increase our body’s sensitivity to insulin by inhibiting a group of enzymes called protein tyrosine phosphatases. It may also help us decrease our body’s production of glucose and help us increase our body’s ability to store starch in the form of glycogen… Recent research from India makes it clear that a variety of non-flavonoid and non-carotenoid antioxidant compounds are present in sea vegetables, including several different types of antioxidant alkaloids.
An increasing number of health benefits from sea vegetables are being explained by their fucoidan concent. Fucoidans are starch-like (polysaccharide) molecules, but they are unique in their complicated structure (which involves a high degree of branching) and their sulfur content. Numerous studies have documented the anti-inflammatory benefits of fucoidans (sometimes referred to as sulfated polysaccharides)… The sulfated polysaccharides in sea vegetables also have anti-viral activity and… anticoagulant and antithrombotic properties that bring valuable cardiovascular benefits.”
Creative Ways to Add More Sea Vegetables to Your Diet
OSU’s bacon-flavored dulse is not yet widely available, but there are many other seaweed varieties to try. Among them:
- Hijiki: A stronger-flavored seaweed that grows in thick branches, which expand considerably when cooked.
- Nori: Often used to make sushi rolls, nori is deep purple or red but turns bright green when toasted. (Untoasted nori is best, nutritionally speaking.)
- Arame: Arame has feathery leaves and a sweeter flavor than some other varieties.
- Wakame: Found in miso soup, wakame is brown with delicate leaves and a mild, non-fishy flavor.
- Dulse: As mentioned, dulse has a chewy texture and is often used in dried or flaked form.
Try fresh sea vegetables as a salad or added to eggs, stir fries, and soup. The flaked form can be used as a seasoning in place of salt or added to smoothies. You can also add sea vegetables to your fermented vegetable recipe to increase the mineral, vitamin, and fiber content. You can add pieces of whole dulse or use flakes.
Wakame needs to be presoaked and diced into the desired size prior to using. As a reminder, choosing seaweed from non-polluted waters is crucial, as these plants absorb the contents of the water in which they’re grown. While this is part of what makes them so nutritious, it can also be their downfall if sourced from contaminated waters.
Further, seaweed that comes from large, industrial seaweed “farms” (often in Asia) may be machine harvested in ways that harm the environment. Look for seaweed sourced from non-polluted waters that is harvested in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner (such as hand harvested). Also check that your sea vegetables are processed using only sun drying or low-temperature air drying, not high heat that may damage nutrients.
Many suppliers also have their products routinely tested for chemicals, heavy metals and, after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan, radioactivity. By seeking out a supplier with high standards and ethics, you’ll receive a true superfood without any risks of contamination or environmental harms.