Anyone for protein-rich insects and seaweed snacks?
As fad diets boost global protein demand, Ireland’s seaweed species look appetising
Dr Maria Hayes, of Teagasc’s Ashtown Food Research Centre, says eating seaweed in salads is very popular in France.
“We are the only species that exhibit disgust in this way,” Mike Gibney, professor emeritus of food and health at University College Dublin (UCD), says about the odds of western consumers eating less-traditional protein sources through this resource-strained century.
While our energy needs are largely served by carbohydrates, without protein, there would no growth, maintenance or repair of our body tissue.
And, in the coming years, a global shift from resource-intensive, animal-sourced proteins to more sustainable marine and plant-based sources is on the cards, both for our health and that of the planet.
But could seaweed and protein-packed insects prove too much, too soon?
“Disgust is something unique to each culture. Disgust plays a huge role in food selection and there would be a good level of disgust about seaweed and about novel protein sources, as we’ve got no experience with them.”
“It’s part of our psyche: just the idea of eating an insect, for example, without first smelling it, tasting it or holding it. That is disgust and an animal doesn’t have that.”
According to Teagasc, global consumption of protein over the last 50 years has risen from 25g to 36g (per person per day), with Europeans now consuming more than four times (that is 47g) than people in India, for example.
While the recommended daily adult protein intake can vary from 45g to 56g, according to some reports, Gibney says consumers haven’t a “bull’s notion” about how much protein they need each day.
Furthermore, the popularity of low-carbohydrate, higher-protein “fad diets,” such as the Atkins diet, may not only be potentially pumping us with too much of particular proteins, but may not even have the desired effect on our waistlines.
“All of the studies that have looked at the weight loss programme in which calorific variation occurred across carbohydrates, proteins and fats… have shown that they don’t make any variation,” says Gibney.
“To paraphrase Bill Clinton: ‘it’s the calories, stupid’.”
Of the paleo diet, which is based on foods presumed to be available to Palaeolithic humans until about 10,000 years ago, Gibney says “it’s nonsense to think that somehow or other, in the 21st century, we can look back thousands of years to when we were out in the jungle.
“To say that what we ate then is relevant to what we eat now is really stupid in my view. Why stop at the paleo diet? Why not go back further?”
“Many of the dietary issues around the globe are from nationalities feeding on the diet of another country,” says dietitian Orla Walsh.
“So, in Japan people have a fantastic diet whereby each meal is well-balanced, but problems would arise if they started taking on a western diet. In the same way, there would be a higher incidence of lactose intolerance in some ethnicities than there would be with the Irish, for example.
“In saying that, our bodies are very clever and adaptable so, within time, we will be fine.”
Which begs the question: what plant or marine-sourced proteins is Ireland likely to produce – or produce more of – as the protein shift unfolds in the coming decades?
If we intend to eat more of such foods, then shouldn’t they be home-grown?
“In a mild, moist climate like Ireland’s, the one crop that grows abundantly well is meadow or pasture grass,” says Dr Conor Meade, of the National Univeristy of Ireland (NUI) in Maynooth.
He lectures in ecology and evolutionary biology, but has also extensively researched agroecology (the ecological processes within agriculture).
“So, if you want to provide protein for people in Ireland, raising cattle is actually a very sensible thing to do.”
Meade says not a lot of people know that Teagasc has demonstrated that Ireland can produce the highest yield of wheat anywhere in the world.
“There is about a 12-15 per cent protein content in wheat, but the problem is that the climate isn’t dry enough for that seed to dry out, which needs to happen before it can be milled for flour.
“Barley and wheat is very difficult and costly to translate from the Irish field onto the Irish plate. The only cereal that we can harvest with a good moisture level, that is transferable into the human food chain, is oats.”
So, if we continue to largely raise livestock on our farmland and most plant-based proteins need to be imported, as we lessen our own intake of meat and dairy, is it time we turned to the sea instead?
This is where NutraMara comes in.
The Marine Functional Foods Research Initiative employed over 30 researchers during a five-year period until late 2015, bringing together Irish marine and food science experts from six universities and seven research centres throughout this island.
NutraMara aimed to mine marine bioresources such as aquaculture or microalgae, or the 300 different seaweed species found around the Irish coast, that may benefit human health.
At Teagasc’s Ashtown Food Research Centre, which led the NutraMara initiative, Dr Maria Hayes researches functional foods: ingredients that can enhance human health above and beyond basic human nutrition – if consumed in adequate amounts.
“You have brown, red and green seaweeds,” says Hayes.
“The brown is grown in abundance around the Irish coast and some companies have harvesting licenses for it.
“The protein in red seaweed can be up to 47 per cent. So there is a lot more protein in seaweed, per dry weight, than there would be in a lot of vegetables. In some instances, they have a higher protein content than vegetable-sourced proteins,” says Hayes.
For example, the protein content of the red seaweed Palmaria palmata (common name Dulse), which was consumed in large amounts by coastal communities during the famine, varies from between 9-25 per cent, depending on the location and season of harvesting.
While amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, Hayes says peptides are strings of between two and 30 amino acids joined together, often giving a ‘hormone-like’ beneficial health effect to the consumer.
“They can affect heart health ... as well as having beneficial antioxidant effects.”
However, Hayes does not believe that seaweed or marine proteins will take over “in any large way” from animal-sourced proteins: it’s more likely for the foreseeable future that we will see seaweed in sports nutrition products or cereal-based snack products.
Under EU law, there are eight seaweeds classified as sea vegetables.
“There’s a big culture of eating seaweeds in salads in places like France, and in Nova Scotia they are eaten as a dried, crisp-like product,” says Hayes.
“And there are companies in Ireland that are drying it, milling it and using it as seasoning products.
“But if you can extract the protein from it in a commercially-viable way then it really expands the use of seaweed as a raw material.”