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Monday, July 16, 2012
WE’VE come a long way from the days when cod liver oil was dosed in unwelcome spoonfuls to children and carrageen moss was sampled by ageing grandmothers, who seemed to find it more palatable than we did the oil.
Cod liver oil didn’t taste too well, but they said it was good for us. At least that’s what our mothers assured us. People, indeed, always realised there was natural, health-giving goodness in the sea, but they did not know how to get at it. Now, Ireland has become internationally recognised for research in the food and marine areas.
Experts from Australia, Canada and other countries recently attended a conference on the subject in Dublin. They told of advances globally, in the field, and were also keen to gather information about what’s happening here.
Extract from seaweed can be used for many purposes, while the sea can also provide ingredients for products that can be used, for instance, in the prevention of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
Of course, all this new-fangled interest in natural food sources is not that new at all. Previous, and wiser, generations knew their value. I had a grandmother who swore by carrageen moss, numerous wild berries and Macroom oaten meal.
She was a light, hardy slip of a countrywoman who lived to be over 90 and never carried an extra pound weight in her long life.
Teagasc is playing a leading role and the combined brainpower of a team of 30 researchers from the food and marine areas is producing results that can compete with, or even better, what is being achieved at wider European level.
Operating under the aegis of NutraMara, they highlighted the need to develop a deeper understanding of Ireland’s marine resources, particularly the extent of our seaweed stock, as well as the potential of fish farming.
Exciting, new results were presented in relation to functional food ingredients from marine plants and fish by-products, including blood pressure lowering agents, anti-cancer materials and anti-inflammatory agents with a variety of therapeutic and health promoting properties.
Under project director Maria Hayes, they are working in a relatively untapped area of huge marine resources, including various types of seaweed.
"The emphasis is on foods which impart health benefits to the consumer," says Dr Hayes.
"It must also be beneficial to the environmental and we’re only interested in looking at sustainable resources."
A great deal of unwanted fish is dumped at sea, but this can be used in cosmetics and chemical and medical products. Due to targets set by the EU and laws governing dumping of unwanted catch at sea, it is no longer environmentally acceptable for marine processors to dispose of it at landfill or at sea.
Overfishing is a persistent problem in Europe and NutraMara research is also focused on novel ways of using the whole fish catch and helping to tackle this problem. The technology is being developed to do that, and the sea is an "almost inexhaustible source" of materials that could be used for many purposes, Dr Hayes pointed out.
Marine ingredients can also be used in cereal, snack and bread products and dairy products, such as yoghurts and cheese. In essence, a valuable harvest of nutritious and healthy produce can be constantly reaped from the seas around us, with immense benefits for human health and the economy.
Seafood festivals take places in many of our coastal areas. Apart from the usual oysters and other shellfish, they sometimes put a thing called "sea vegetable" on their menus. Sea vegetable is really a fancy name for seaweed.
Probably the best-known is carrageen, a greenish-yellow to red moss-like plant which is loaded in magnesium and vitamins. It has been traditionally used for treating coughs and viral infections as well as a thickener in foods, like soup, due to its gelatinous properties.
After picking, carrageen needs to be sundried to improve its flavour. Picking is usually done in May and June when growth is good and the days are long to allow for drying.
There’s also the larger, red plant, called dillisk, also picked in early summer to allow for drying in the sun. It grows attached to the rock or to the stipe of another type of seaweed, oarweed, and is best known for its high iron content and protein value.
Sleabhcán, meaning ‘wilty’ or flaccid in English, is a thin film-like sea vegetable which is known as nori or laver in English and most commonly used in Asian countries as sushi wrapping.
Very high in protein, this sea vegetable also contains a large amount of vitamin C and as much vitamin A as spinach, as well as many other vitamins and minerals.
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