Concerned about plastic pollution? Seaweed can help.

Plastics are everywhere. If you take a minute to look around your house, it’s really quite astonishing how much of it we use. It’s no wonder why plastics became so ubiquitous: it’s a cheap, flexible, and durable material. The issue is that these durable materials have been commonly used for single-use disposable items such as eating utensils, bags, containers, straws, packaging, bottles, the list goes on and on.

These single use items typically end up in the trash and can take up to 6 generations to breakdown. Plastics in the ocean have been accumulating at a far faster pace than their ability to break down. Some studies suggest at this rate there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. To make matters worse, as plastics break down they create smaller and smaller plastic particles, commonly referred to as micro-plastics. Micro-plastics have made headlines in the last decade as, to our horror, we have discovered that we consume them constantly. Micro-plastics have been found in seafood, beer, salt, chicken, and water.

In response some cities have banned some plastic items, most notably bags and straws. However, this is a drop in the bucket and banning plastics entirely would be a political and economical nightmare. Luckily, seaweed is here to the rescue. A few clever groups have found ways to replace single use plastics by using seaweed extracts. So far we have seen seaweed replace packaging, straws, bottles, and even surf boards. These items are not only biodegradable, but generated from a sustainable resource. Look for more and more of these items to pop up in the near future.

It's national seafood month. Let's not forget seaweed.

It’s national seafood month!

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When most people think of seafood the mental image of fish, lobster, and crab jump into their heads.

While fish are the number one ranking seafood by tons/year, this mental image is missing the second largest seafood market on the planet: seaweed. Did you know that global seaweed cultivation is more than twice the amount of crustaceans farmed and captured by weight? (FAO 2016). Over 31 million tons of seaweed is produced annually. Red seaweeds make up most of the global production (18.4 million tons), followed by brown seaweeds (10.5 million tons), and the rest is green seaweeds.

Red seaweeds are cultivated at the highest rates due to some industrial extracts (see carrageenan post) and valued flavor. We are all familiar with the taste of some red algae; nori is a commonly used red seaweed in the making of sushi rolls.

So next time you hear the word seafood, don’t forget the second largest seafood group: seaweeds.

What the heck is seaweed anyway?

Sometimes we take our phycological education for granted and forget that algal terminology can be a bit confusing. Let’s review some basic concepts to ensure that we are all on the same page when thinking about seaweed.

Alga = singular

Algae = plural

Algaes = not a real word

Microalgae = single cell algae species

Macroalgae = multi-cellular algae species = seaweed

3 branches of algae = red (Rhodophyta), green (Chlorophyta), brown (Ochrophyta)

Kelp = a branch of brown seaweeds (Laminariales)

Plant = Photosynthetic thing on land

A very brief overview of the evolution of photosynthetic organisms.

In the beginning there was a bacterium that learned a neat trick. This bacterium contained pigments that allowed it to capture sunlight and convert it into energy via photosynthesis. The bacterium was engulfed and incorporated by another single celled organism (a eukaryote), this event is called primary endosymbiosis. Its a partnership between the two cells (bacterium and eukaryote) similar to the photosynthetic algae that like inside corals. Through this process red, and then later green, algae came into existence. After this primary endosymbiotic union, secondary and even tertiary endosymbioses occurred - algal cells themselves getting engulfed and incorporated to give rise to other algal groups including macroalgae, browns, and terrestrial plants. If you want to dive into the specifics of how scientists discovered this, here is a good paper outlining how the genetic code of algae lead to the discovery.

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It may seem a little complicated, and in fact it is, its very complicated. But it is super cool and for this reason we don’t like algae being called plants; it’s like calling “fish” … “humans.” On a more humorous note, we do encourage people to call plants, “land-adapted algae”. Again, check out algaebase.org to review all of this and see where your favorite seaweed fits in.

Could you survive by only eating seaweed?

If you look at the nutrient label on the packaging of any food item, you would see the groups: calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat, sodium, and occasionally other items such as minerals. We are all familiar with calories being the amount of energy within the food. “Calorie counting” is a common practice for people looking to watch their weight, as consuming calories faster than you can metabolize them can lead to weight gain. However, without calories your body wouldn’t have energy to survive.

Calories in your diet come from fat, proteins, organic acids, and especially carbohydrates. Carbohydrate is an umbrella term for all types of sugar, starch, cellulose, and even dietary fiber. The sugars in most algae though, are not digestible by most humans. The sugars in most algae are known to be β(1→4) linkages in glucan polysaccharides. Most of the human population lacks the ability to digest these types of sugars as we are adapted to eat alpha(1→4) linkages in glucan polysaccharides (i.e. sucrose), and therefore, we don’t get the energy associated with these calories from most seaweed sugars.

There is one human population in Japan, however, that can digest these sugars. Apparently these Japanese have become hosts to common gut bacterium (Bacteroides plebeius) that exhibits polysaccharide-degrading enzymes. This is likely due to many generations of seaweed consumption and adaptation.

Just for fun, let’s see how much seaweed you would need to consume to get enough energy to survive. Assuming you are not Japanese, the only calories will be protein derived. The average person needs 2000 calories a day to maintain. You get about 4 calories per gram of protein. Now let’s use dulse as our reference seaweed. Dulse has 3.5% protein content. That means you would need to eat at least 31.49 pounds of dulse to satisfy your caloric needs. Now this is only in reference to calories, almost no single food item has all the nutrients the body needs for survival, so please don’t try this diet at home.

Replace your daily fish oil supplement with algae.

When it comes to dietary supplements, few are as vetted as fish oil. Most claims made on the side of a dietary supplement bottle are marked with an (*) or some other indicator related the lack of evidence supporting said claim.

Fish oils on the other hand have been clinically tested and found effective in reducing arthritis, blood pressure, and heat disease. Most studies point to the long-chain fatty acids DHA and EPA (Docosahexaenoic acid Eicosapentaenoic acid) as being responsible for the added health benefits.

Unfortunately, fish oils are not a sustainable resource. Fish oils are made from the processing of wild caught forage fish, like anchovy and herring. These wild populations have been under growing pressure by a number of industries such as animal feed, nutraceuticals, and cosmetics. The wild catch of forage fish hasn’t increased in the last two decades while the human population is growing faster than ever. Many scientists believe the forage fish populations will not support the human population by 2030.

Fortunately, we know where fish get their oils from: algae. There are plenty of micro and macroalgae that contain high amounts of DHA and EPA. A group called FIN (Feed Innovation Network) has compiled a list of algae with their fatty acid content. If you wish to increase your EPA and DHA intake in a safe and sustainable way, the best thing you can do is eat more algae.

Which seaweeds are toxic?

You might occasionally hear about toxic algae in the news. Toxic algae will always be in reference to microalgae, or harmful algae blooms (HABs). HABs are responsible for shellfish poisoning and what are known as red tides. HABs can exist in salt or fresh water bodies and are toxic if consumed.

While seaweeds are classified as macroalgae. There are currently no known poisonous or toxic seaweeds in existence. There are a few seaweeds that produce acid (acidweed), but these are no more acidic than your own stomach acid and would not harm you if consumed.

Incredibly there are only 14 reported deaths ever linked to eating seaweed, and the reports state that it’s not the seaweed itself but bacteria that had grown upon the seaweed. We say incredible because there are huge populations (Japan, Korea, China) that consume raw seaweed daily, while in the USA there are 31 reported deaths by E. Coli every year.

Can seaweed combat climate change?

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released a report on the current state and predictions of anthropogenic climate change as a followup to the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement was an international treaty, pending ratification, with the goal of preventing the average global temperature from reaching 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels. The IPCC laid out the global consequences if the 1.5 C threshold is exceeded. The results were not good: sea level rise, ocean acidification, species extinctions, increasing storm frequency and intensity (as we watch hurricane Michael make landfall less than 1 month after hurricane Florence). The IPCC stated that if we can’t develop technology to remove CO2 from the atmosphere these scenarios will come to fruition sooner than previous studies indicated.

The oceans act like a giant CO2 sponge and over 1/3 of anthropogenic CO2 is absorbed into the sea. Increasing CO2 in the ocean causes the water to become more acidic. Ocean acidification has strong negative effects on a number of organisms, especially calcifying or shell building animals. The IPCC is focused on removing CO2 from the atmosphere, but perhaps taking CO2 out of the oceans would also be a key strategy in reducing anthropogenic climate change.

Could seaweeds be used to take CO2 out of the ocean? Like terrestrial plants, algae uses the process of photosynthesis to take up CO2 and release oxygen, locking carbon away in it’s tissues. This idea of decarbonization by algae has been tested by a group in Korea, and they found that they could use natural or constructed kelp beds to take up and store 10 tons of carbon per hectare every year. Another research team made a rough calculation that global macroalgae could pull down up to 268 million tons of carbon per year.

The problem with using macroalgae for carbon storage is that algal tissues will eventually break down and through bacterial decomposition CO2 will be re-released. There have been a few ideas of what to do with all the carbon sequestered in seaweed: some suggest sinking it to the bottom of the ocean while others say to use it as a bio fuel to reduce the use of fossil fuels.

Reducing emissions will go a long way in avoiding many of the doomsday scenarios, but doesn’t address the current and near future ocean acidification issues. While seaweed can’t solve climate change, it will undoubtedly play a major role in curtailing CO2 within the oceans.

Is seaweed the new superfood?

When it comes to superfoods, kale is king. Not only is kale nutrient rich, but affordable, sustainable, and versatile as well. People have become incredibly crafty, developing recipes such as pickled kale, kale nachos, kale cocktails, and even frozen kale cubes- the list goes on. For those of us looking for a little superfood variety, let’s turn our attention to seaweed.

Orlando style wrote an article comparing the USDA reported nutrient values of kale and seaweed. They explained that not only is seaweed twice as rich in nutrients, but also rich in iodine.

Where seaweed falls short is the lack of creative and interesting recipes. You just don’t see seaweed infused into dishes the way kale has in the last decade. We encourage people to experiment with seaweed, but if you don’t know where to start, the internet is becoming more robust in seaweed recipes. Currently our favorite cookbook is ‘Seaweed: A collection of simple and delicious recipes from an ocean of food’ by Claudia Siefert. Claudia recognizes seaweed as the new superfood and provides a range of simple to complex recipes using a variety of seaweeds that can be collected or purchased in the northern hemisphere.

Start experimenting, and we hope to start seeing seaweed used in fun new ways.

The Russians are investing in aquaculture while the USA is standing by

In the last few years the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations have been showing global reports that aquaculture is on the rise. For the last decade the aquaculture industry has grown at a pace of 8% annually and has huge potential for future gains. The FAO report on global aquaculture lists the largest seaweed producers as China, Indonesia, Philippines, Korea, and Japan. The United States didn’t even make it to the top 15 producers (neither did Russia). While the top countries haven’t seen big production gains in the last decade the market is still growing leaving plenty of room for other countries to grow.

Today an article caught my attention in Seafood-Source “investments in Russian aquaculture on the rise”. The article speaks of the Russian government supporting the industry with the goal of tripling aquaculture output to 700,000 metric tons by 2030. While the output figure includes fish and other aquaculture species, they also plan on expanding seaweed production. Clearly the Russians are trying to establish themselves in this expanding market.

Why is the USA not joining the race? With an expansive coastline and nutrient rich waters, the USA is positioned to make a real contribution to global seaweed production. Many point the finger at government, citing that it can take over 10 years to attain a permit, if it’s ever approved. With such long lag times and uncertainty, attaining investments can also be challenging.

It’s clear more and more countries are willing to invest in the aquaculture/ seaweed industry. What is unclear is, if and when, the USA is willing to invest.

Of Carrageenan and Health

Image of Mazzaella laminarioides by M. Graham.

We’ve lost count of how many times we’ve been asked about carrageenan and it’s ability to cause cancer. Controversy swirls around this molecule and it’s easy enough to google ‘carrageenan’ to find calls for banning its use. For those of you unwilling to read the entire post, let us summarize that carrageenan does not cause cancer! Like any good conspiracy theory, the claim is built off of a grain of truth. A study referencing the wrong molecule exaggerated it’s effects and became sensationalized by the media. That study has been refuted numerous times by a variety of academic and government agencies. However, the damage was done, and the internet is a very unforgiving place for misguided information. We will review the uses, definitions, and conflicting studies behind this controversy.

What Is Carrageenan?

Carrageenan is a component of some red seaweeds most notably Chondrus crispus, also known as Irish moss. The molecule itself is a sugar, a polysaccharide to be exact. There are a variety of carrageenans that are described by their bonding configuration and molecular weights (Mw). These varieties, like most molecules, can take their shape through chemical processing to fulfill different functions. Typically, carrageenan refers to the sugar used in the food industry (Mw 200k-800k Da) as a thickening agent, and can be found in many common household items. The sugar is also non-digestible to humans (stay tuned for upcoming post) making it a sought after additive for low calorie sweets treats. Irish moss has been harvested for over 14,000 years for human consumption, and carrageenan has been used as a thickening agent since at least the 19th century.

Where is the grain of truth?

Dr. Joanne K. Tobacman is the most cited reference in carrageenan attacks. In 2001, she published a review of carrageenan and it’s effects on health in the journal of Environmental Health Perspectives. She cited a study from 1982 that linked degraded carrageenan (also known as carrageenan gum or poligeenan Mw 20k-40k Da) to cancer in lab animals. In her review she also cited a number of papers investigating degraded carrageenan causing intestinal inflammation leading to ulcers and lesions. In her paper, Dr. Tobacman suggested that the use of carrageenan be reviewed by the FDA and change the restrictions to the molecular weight requirements as a food additive.

The rebuttal

It turns out that the term carrageenan was misused in the previous studies. Dr. Myra L. Weiner published a paper refuting Dr. Tobacman in 2016 in the journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology called ‘Parameters and pitfalls to consider in the conduct of food additive research, Carrageenan as a case study’. Dr. Weiner’s followup paper in 2017 again stated the importance of defining the molecule in question and illustrated the root of the issue in regards to carrageenan. Dr. Weiner laid out the argument that previous studies misused the name carrageenan by confusing degraded carrageenan and poligeenan with non-degraded carrageenan, lacking fundamental understanding of physical/chemical and toxicological properties. Non-degraded carrageenan is used as a food additive, while degraded carrageenan and poligeenan are not. The process to degrade carrageenan requires high heat (95C) and acid (<1pH) which neither occur within the human body. Weiner concluded that the non-degraded form of carrageenan, typically refereed to simply as carrageenan, was perfectly safe for food use and it has continued to be used to this day.

Going forward

The FDA supports carrageenan use and classifies it as meeting organic standards. The EU has also re-evaluated carrageenan as safe, with a clear banning of poligeenan defined by molecular weights. However, there is still pressure to remove the sugar from commercial products. There are still hundreds of ‘nutrition/ health’ articles out there sounding alarm bells to not use products containing carrageenan.

We certainly understand the importance of understanding the food you are consuming, and it’s a shame that some companies have caused such distrust among consumers. There has been so much positive change recently to correct this consumer trust, but there is still a long way to go. The wealth of information on the internet is daunting and confusing when it comes to nutrition. We have embedded all the links to the actual publications and government reports within this post. You can read the letter from the FDA to Tobacman rejecting her petition to ban carrageenan.

TAKE HOME MESSAGE: The production of carrageenan is in fact another safe and positive reason to support the rise of seaweed farming in the US and globally. If you hear otherwise, you are probably reading an article recycling the misinformation described above. Always check with your source ….

Our dulse is being served in the #1 restaurant in the world- Eleven Madison Park.

We are proud to announce that Monterey Bay Seaweeds is being plated at Eleven Madison Park in NY. If you haven’t heard of them, Eleven Madison Park has been rated #1 on the top 50 restaurants in the world (2017) and has been given 4 stars from the NY Times.

We can’t wait to hear what Chef-owner Daniel Humm has planned for our dulse.

What makes the red abalone red?

The red abalone (Haliotis rufescens) obtained it’s name by the red coloring on it’s shell. If you look closely you can see bands of red and greenish-brown. Well you know the old saying, “you are what you eat.” It turns out that the abalone shell directly reflects what kind of algae it consumes. For that very reason the red abalone requires a diet rich in red seaweeds (Rhodophyta), otherwise the shell looks green and is harder to sell on the market as a red abalone.

Monterey Bay Seaweeds supplies red seaweed (ogo and dulse) for our friends at the Monterey Abalone Company. The seaweed is a special treat for the little molluscs, ensuring they are red, healthy, and delicious.

Here is a recent blurb from Justin Cogley, a local chef who uses our seaweed and abalone from the Monterey Abalone Company. You can visit his website at http://www.chefjustincogley.com/ for culinary news and recipes.

Do you have a question about seaweed, do you ask a phycologist or an algologist?

It’s tempting to simply add ‘ology’ to the end of a word when referring to the study of a subject. For that reason many people often refer to a person who studies algae as an algologist. The true meaning of algologist is ‘one who studies pain’. From the Latin root word algos meaning pain.

The correct term for the study of algae is phycology, from the Latin root phycos meaning seaweed. The use of the term algology, as the study of algae, is so prevalent that most dictionaries will define it as ‘the study of algae: see phycology’. To make matters worse I have seen algology defined simply as phycology.

Be warned, when using the correct terms phycology or phycologist, be prepared for people and computers to correct you with, “Do you mean psychology?”

AlgaeBase: One of the best algae resources available!

Have you ever gone to your favorite sushi spot and ordered a side seaweed salad made of wakame? While the connotation is that wakame refers to the intertdial species Undaria pinnatifida, the literal translation from Japanese is ‘seaweed’. An alga’s common name can vary by region and language while the scientific name is a global standard. These scientific or ‘Latin’ names can change over time as new discoveries appear; this was the case in the early 2000s with the leaps made in genetic sequencing technologies.

If you ever want to know the history of an alga’s Latin name, or know the common name in any part of the world, look no further. AlgaeBase.org is by far one of the best algae resources available to the public. On AlgaeBase you can look up common names of algae and find all names ever associated with it. You can also find other species information such as ecology, images, global distribution, and common uses. Each bit of information is linked to a vetted document, typically a peer-reviewed journal.

Take a minute and visit the site. Poke around and look up some of your favorite seaweeds, you might be surprised with what you find.

How will we feed 9.6 billion people in 2050? The solution is within the ocean

The population is estimated to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. The FAO has reported that mankind will need to produce 70% more food than it did in 2009. Agriculture has had over a hundred years of industrialization to surpass global food supply expectations. Yet, we have become a population dependent on GMO mono-crop culture. With agriculture already at it’s maximum efficiency, where will the extra 70% of food come from?

While the land has had tremendous science and technologies invested in crop cultivation, we are still essentially hunting in the oceans. The oceans make up 70% of the earth surface and we have yet to realize it’s full potential in attaining food security.

Here is a recent article in Quartz about the future of ocean farming

Otters and urchins and kelp ... oh my! Does your kelp forest require otters? Maybe not.

It’s sea otter awareness week, and after reading enough posts about how sea otters save kelp forests, we thought it time that we set the record straight.

Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) are commonly thought to be the keystone species in kelp forest ecosystems along the west cost of North America, from the Aleutian Islands to California. The well known paradigm follows the logic that urchins can eat and destroy entire kelp beds, leaving a low diversity/productivity urchin barren. Sea otters are veracious predators of urchins, and when otters are present in a kelp bed, they control urchin populations and prevent barren formation. While sea otters can definitely be effective keystone predators in some systems, the full story is much more complex.

The fur trade in the 1800 nearly caused the extinction of the sea otters. In 1911, otters gained government protection and their populations began to recover. A number of studies showed that the recolonization of sea otters in the Aleutian Islands were able to mitigate urchin barrens (1,2,3). The effect was quick and broad. These systems were clearly dysfunctional in the absence of otters. Subsequently, this idea of top down control became prevalent in scientific circles and an overarching theme applied to all kelp beds. Yet, in California, where otters had been absent for a hundred years, many kelp beds were thriving. Of the 224 kelp beds in southern California in the 1980s, only 10% were classified as urchin barrens (4). How was it that these beds could be doing just fine without otters, while the beds in the Aleutians clearly needed them?

It turns out, that kelp beds in the Aleutians are simple systems and contain few other urchin predators, while the California beds have a number of other species that can fulfill that functional role: the sun star (Pycnopodia helianthoides), sheephead (Semicossyphus pulcher), and the spiny lobster (Panulirus interruptus) (5,6). Urchin barrens do occur in southern California, but generally these are areas (1) subjected to over-fishing of these urchin-eating predators or (2) high levels of pollution, temperature, or other disturbances that directly kill the kelp. Southern California also experiences urchin disease and El Ninos, which can control urchins independent of otters. In fact, its been over one hundred years since an otter swam through the kelp fronds of the worlds largest kelp forest at Point Loma in San Diego, yet this forest remains the global example of a well functioning kelp system.

Food webs within kelp beds are complex and vary in space and time. What is clear, is that kelp forest resilience depends on biodiversity, and over-fishing/ hunting and other disturbances can tip the scales in favor of urchins. This is currently happening in various locations along the Monterey Peninsula, in plan view of a healthy otter population, though this situation probably wont last long. Otters are veracious predators of urchins and can stop or help mitigate urchin population explosions, especially when they are the only form of protection from urchin grazing. Such simple kelp systems, however, are restricted to certain geographic regions (e.g. the Aleutians), whereas other kelp beds (like in California) have a higher diversity of sea otter predators and other forms of urchin control, and don’t require otters for the kelp forest to function properly. But with impending climate change and human impacts on kelp systems, who knows what will happen and those charismatic furry little urchin predators may serve as an insurance policy if all hell breaks loose. Until then, at least they are fun to watch.

  1. Estes and Palmisano 1974

  2. Estes et al. 1978

  3. Estes and Duggins 1995

  4. Foster and Schiel 1988

  5. Watanabe 1984a

  6. Tegner 1980

Hello World!

Today we are announcing that Monterey Bay Seaweeds’ blog page is going live! Dr. Michael H. Graham is a tenured faculty professor and heads the aquaculture division at Moss Landing Marine Labs in California. He is also owner of the Monterey Bay Seaweed company, which provides edible seaweed delicacies. This puts Michael in a unique position to talk about a range of topics relating to seaweeds. The blog will cover cuisine, nutrition, aquaculture practices, ecology, and cutting edge science. While we will be quick to share news, we will be just as quick in dispelling false information in the hopes that the public will be properly informed about their food choices and their environmental impacts.

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