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Scientists closer to seaweed-based functional foods

By Ankush Chibber , 19-Jul-2012

Scientists at Australia’s Flinders University are inching closer to discovering new chemical compounds in seaweed that can be used to develop functional foods.

Under the research led by the Flinders Centre for Marine Bioproducts Development, researchers are now extracting compounds from macro-algae that have never before been studied.

Emily Charrison, a spokesperson for Flinders, told FoodNavigator-Asia that researchers at the centre have analysed the chemical and mineral composition of many seaweed species abundant to Australia's Southern coastline.

“They have also extracted higher value carbohydrates from select species, which haven't before been studied in this way, and are now determining their chemical structures and likely health effects,” she said.

“Importantly, the centre is also developing advanced extraction technologies in order to improve the commercial viability of a local seaweed industry, building upon its proprietary extraction technologies for algae bioproducts.”

Charrison said the researchers are looking for anti-cancer, antioxidant, antibacterial and anti-neurodegenerative compounds, and these screening tests will be selected according to the types of compounds extracted from the algae.

On the question of a resource base for seaweed in Australia, if commercialisation is a possibility, Charrison pointed out that vast quantities of seaweed grow along several of Australia's coastlines, enough for initial industry development.

“However, much of this seaweed is strictly protected due to its important ecological roles. Therefore, the development of a large and successful industry would require a shift from wild harvest toward seaweed aquaculture,” she said.

Higher value seaweed

According to Charrison, given the relatively low value of whole seaweed food products and the high costs of labour in Australia, a successful seaweed-based food industry would need to focus on the extraction of higher value metabolites from seaweeds to be used as functional food additives or as nutritional supplements. 

“For example, seaweed extracts have long been used as a source of dietary iodine, but more recently there has been great interest in other seaweed derived compounds,” she said.

“These include compounds such as certain carbohydrates for their anti-inflammatory, anti-coagulant and immuno-stimulating effects, and oils for their beneficial omega-3 fatty acids,” she added.

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