Edible marine algae has been a part of culinary traditions around the world for centuries. Wakame (Undaria pinnatifida), a marine algae indigenous to the cold, coastal waters of the Pacific, has been used as a food and medicinally in Japan and Korea for over a thousand years. Another marine algae, Ecklonia cava (also known as paddle weed), has also been part of these nations’ traditional diets. Dulse (Palmaria palmata), found primarily in northern Atlantic coastal areas, is an edible reddish brown algae. It was mentioned in 11th century Icelandic sagas and referenced in 18th century media in Ireland. The edible marine algae bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosis) was commonly eaten for its iodine content in the early 1800s in North America.
In recent years, researchers have begun to quantify what many traditional cultures recognized instinctively: edible marine algaes have medicinal properties. One reason marine algaes have been so valued is because of their high mineral content. One serving of kelp (Ascophyllum nodosum) contains a quarter of the daily recommended intake of calcium and magnesium, almost that much copper, half the day’s requirement for iron, and over 40 times the reference nutrient intake of iodine.1 Lithothamnion calcareum, known colloquially as “maerl” in France, is highly sought after as a mineral supplement. An in vivo study showed that it improved bone mineral density in mice.2 Wakame is mineral-rich as well, containing ample amounts of iodine, calcium, magnesium, sodium, and phosphorus.3 Dulse contains not only the essential minerals calcium, potassium, magnesium, and sodium, but also trace minerals copper, iron, iodine, and zinc.4 Algas calcareas, found in coastal waters off South America, is especially rich in a form of calcium that is more easily absorbed by the body than most other commercial forms of this mineral; it has been shown in clinical trials to increase bone density.5,6
Edible marine algaes also contain natural anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds. Kelp contains fucoidan, which has been shown to dampen inflammation in vivo.7,8 Phlorotannins in Ecklonia cava suppress inflammation through several different pathways.9 Ecklonia also contains phlorotannins and polyphenols that are potent antioxidants.10,11 In spirulina, the pigment phycocyanin is the primary antioxidant.12 Spirulina decreases oxidation and protects cells from free radicals in vitro13,14 and raises plasma antioxidant levels in vivo.15 This alga also has anti-inflammatory properties, inhibiting liver inflammation in patients with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis16 and reversing arthritis-related inflammation in mice.17 The antioxidant properties in bladderwrack come from carotenoids18 and from the polysaccharide fucoxanthin.19 Dunaliella, too, contains carotenoids, contributing to its antioxidant effects.20 Dulse contains polyphenols, which are believed to be responsible for its antioxidant properties.21
Researchers have also investigated marine algaes for their anti-cancer properties.
Dulse shows anti-proliferative qualities in vitro.22,23 Dunaliella has shown anti-tumor effects in animal studies.24,25 In vitro studies on the fucoxanthin from wakame suggest it may have anti-proliferative, apoptotic effects.26,27 An extract from Ecklonia cava shows anti-proliferative effects in vitro; researchers theorize it works by interfering with cancer-associated enzyme activity.28 In mice, the polyphenols in ecklonia reduced skin cancer tumors by interfering with the COX-2 pathway.29 Lithothamnion calcareum may help prevent colon cancer by preventing inflammation and colon polyps, according to animal models.30 Fucoidan in bladderwrack also shows promise against cancer. In vitro it induces apoptosis.31,32 Mice injected with fucoidan show increased natural killer cell activity.33
marine algae may be helpful in the treatment of diabetes, according to animal models. Kelp lowers fasting blood sugar levels in rats34, spirulina helps normalize blood sugar levels in rats,35 and the fucoidan in wakame lowers blood sugar levels and reduces body weight in mice.36
Edible marine algaes also confer cardiovascular benefits. Spirulina improves overall cholesterol profiles in human clinical trials.37,38 Wakame has been shown to lower triglyceride levels in rats.39 A phlorotannin in Ecklonia cava functions as a natural ACE inhibitor, which can help lower blood pressure.40 Dunaliella supports healthy arteries by reducing vascular smooth muscle cell proliferation, a condition associated with narrowing of the arteries.41 Carotenoids, such as those found in dunaliella, have been shown to protect against atherosclerosis.42 Two marine algae species, bladderwrack and wakame, also have natural anti-coagulation effects. In bladderwrack, the active compound is fucoidan. When compared to the prescription drug heparin, fucoidan had greater anti-clotting activity43 while simultaneously inhibiting excessive bleeding.44 Wakame, too, has similar anti-clotting properties and fewer side effects than heparin.45
The liver can also benefit from marine algae’s effects. In vitro research suggests that Ecklonia cava can help protect the liver from fibrosis.46 In vivo studies involving rodents demonstrate that dunaliella protects against liver toxicity.47,48,49 In clinical trials, hepatitis patients were given spirulina for six months; by the end of the trial, they showed significant decreases in their viral load.50
Some marine algaes have anti-viral properties. In clinical trials, study participants with herpes experienced fewer symptoms and faster healing when given wakame.51 Additional research shows that the anti-herpes compound in wakame is likely fucoidan, and is effective against herpes simplex 1 and 2 as well as human cytomegalovirus.52 In vitro research has shown Ecklonia cava to block HIV-1 reverse transcriptase, which is necessary for the HIV virus to replicate.
marine algae helps a myriad of health conditions. In rodent models, spirulina has been shown to protect brain progenitor cells from acute inflammation,53 protect against damage from Parkinson’s disease,54 and reduce amyloid beta protein deposits associated with Alzheimer’s disease.55 Ecklonia cava interferes with processes associated with asthma attacks56 and reduces allergic response to IgE allergens in vitro.57
Kelp helps boost immune response; in an in vivo experiment, kelp extract injected into mice boosted splenic natural killer cell activity.58 Compounds in wakame have been shown to reduce body weight in animal models.59,60 The fucoidan in bladderwrack may also be useful for weight loss. It inhibits glucose uptake into fat cells and helps to break down fat.61
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