Seaweeds: Edible, Available, and Sustainable

Seaweeds: Edible, Available, and Sustainable

by Ole G. Mouritsen

Until recently, seaweed for most Americans was nothing but a nuisance, clinging to us as we swim in the ocean and stinking up the beach as it rots in the sun. With the ever-growing popularity of sushi restaurants across the country, however, seaweed is becoming a substantial part of our total food intake. And even as we dine with delight on maki, miso soup, and


Until recently, seaweed for most Americans was nothing but a nuisance, clinging to us as we swim in the ocean and stinking up the beach as it rots in the sun. With the ever-growing popularity of sushi restaurants across the country, however, seaweed is becoming a substantial part of our total food intake. And even as we dine with delight on maki, miso soup, and seaweed salads, very few of us have any idea of the nutritional value of seaweed. Here celebrated scientist Ole G. Mouritsen, drawing on his fascination with and enthusiasm for Japanese cuisine, champions seaweed as a staple food while simultaneously explaining its biology, ecology, cultural history, and gastronomy.
Mouritsen takes readers on a comprehensive tour of seaweed, describing what seaweeds actually are (algae, not plants) and how people of different cultures have utilized them since prehistoric times for a whole array of purposes—as food and fodder, for the production of salt, in medicine and cosmetics, as fertilizer, in construction, and for a number of industrial end uses, to name just a few. He reveals the vast abundance of minerals, trace elements, proteins, vitamins, dietary fiber, and precious polyunsaturated fatty acids found in seaweeds, and provides instructions and recipes on how to prepare a variety of dishes that incorporate raw and processed seaweeds. Approaching the subject from not only a gastronomic but also a scientific point of view, Mouritsen sets out to examine the past and present uses of this sustainable resource, keeping in mind how it could be exploited for the future. Because seaweeds can be cultivated in large quantities in the ocean in highly sustainable ways, they are ideal for battling hunger and obesity alike.  
With hundreds of delectable illustrations depicting the wealth of species, colors, and shapes of seaweed, Seaweeds: Edible, Available, and Sustainable makes a strong case for granting these “vegetables from the sea” a prominent place in our kitchens.

Editorial Reviews

Harold McGee
“Ole G. Mouritsen’s Seaweeds is a wonderfully wide-ranging, beautifully illustrated introduction to these strange, underappreciated, delicious forms of life.”
Shep Erhart
Seaweeds is by far the most comprehensive, informative, and creative offering on macroalgae I have ever seen. And to this wealth of information, Ole G. Mouritsen has added many personal anecdotes, unusual recipes, and beautiful pictures. Anyone with simple curiosity or extensive knowledge about marine algae will enjoy this extraordinary book.”
Louis D. Druehl
 “Ole G. Mouritsen has done it again! Seaweeds parallels his Sushi in excellence of presentation. The depth of his historic, biologic, economic, and culinary notes, including nutritional facts, is stunning. The layout and illustrations are a visual feast. What a fine exploration of marine meadow, forest, and garden plants. Having read Seaweeds, you will be compelled to further explore this unique and diverse group of plants. Personally, I’ll be following his recipes.”
Ren� Redzepi

 “A great exploration of the wonderful world of seaweed and, more importantly, its potential for adding deliciousness to any meal.”
Seaweeds is not quite an academic book, not quite a field guide, and not quite a cookbook—it’s the best of all worlds.”
“[A] beautifully illustrated guide for the non-specialist to the immense nutritional, medicinal, industrial and environmental properties of seaweed. A passionate evangelist—and self-confessed obsessive—Mouritsen has travelled the world in his search for the ‘seaweed people’ who make their lives out of this astonishing stuff.”
Rene Redzepi
 “A great exploration of the wonderful world of seaweed and, more importantly, its potential for adding deliciousness to any meal.”
“A very approachable and rather enjoyable read. . . . As you look at the photos, it’s hard to deny the surprising physical beauty to all the edible marine algae. And you’ll marvel at the tasting notes Mouritsen provides. Of course, for food lovers interested in actually preparing seaweeds, Mouritsen shares with readers a number of recipes, including Miso, St. Patrick’s Cabbage Soup (using carrageen), Guacamole with Dried Seaweeds, and Seaweed Pesto. There’s a lot to admire about Seaweeds, and much that it has to offer.”
Ren Redzepi

 “A great exploration of the wonderful world of seaweed and, more importantly, its potential for adding deliciousness to any meal.”
Current Books on Gardening & Botany - Adele Kleine
“A fascinating book, filled with illustrations of algae and examples of seaweed cuisine, . . . . [that] will open your eyes to another world, where seaweed is valued and cherished.”
Country Life - Mary Miers
“[Mouritsen’s] immense knowledge and enthusiasm are . . . imparted in a series of fascinating chapters that encompass biology, cultural history, ecology, medicine, and cookery. . . . [T]his beautifully produced book explains the industrial, health, and culinary properties of seaweeds.”
Shelf Awareness
“[T]he photos are ethereal.”
Times Literary Supplement - Richard Shelton
Seaweeds is an excellent book, deserving the serious attention of marine resource managers—and certainly also, that of the more adventurous seaside cook.”
“There is much to enjoy in Ole G. Mouritsen’s beautifully illustrated book.”
Journal of Phycology
“Mouritsen . . . brings his passion and inquisitiveness to the exploration of past, present, and potential uses of seaweeds. His approach can best be described as artistic, gastronomic, and scientific. Seaweeds is a visual feast. Bright photographs, reproduced ancient illustrations, and line drawings compete with a well-researched text for the reader’s attention. . . . Seaweeds, unique in its presentation and orientation, equally at home on the coffee table and in the office, is a must for your phyco edification and entertainment.”
Food Security
“An enjoyable and stimulating book.”
René Redzepi
 “A great exploration of the wonderful world of seaweed and, more importantly, its potential for adding deliciousness to any meal.”
René Redzepi
 “A great exploration of the wonderful world of seaweed and, more importantly, its potential for adding deliciousness to any meal.”
Library Journal
This comprehensive treatment of the historical, biological, nutritional, and industrial aspects of seaweeds draws attention to a neglected resource. Mouritsen (biophysics, Univ. of Southern Denmark; Sushi: Food for the Eye, the Body and the Soul) covers seaweed in the wild, its aquaculture, chemical composition, nutritional value, and uses in cosmetics, animal feed, and fertilizer. Numerous photos and drawings illustrate the different types of seaweed and their harvesting in various locations worldwide. A unique feature of this volume is its presentation of recipes showing how seaweed can be used in various dishes such as soups, salads, sauces, egg and vegetable dishes, breads, and desserts. Margin notes and sidebars appear throughout, and tables of the nutritional content of each variety of seaweed (red, brown, green, blue) are indeed a revelation. VERDICT A well-written presentation for the general reader of an underused resource, this volume fills a niche among seaweed cookbooks such as J. Gusman's Vegetables from the Sea, specialized scientific treatises (C. Wiencke's Seaweed Biology), and field guides to the seaweed of specific locales.—Judith B. Barnett, Univ. of Rhode Island Lib., Kingston

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University of Chicago Press
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Read an Excerpt


edible, available & sustainable

By Ole G. Mouritsen, Mariela Johansen

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013Ole G. Mouritsen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-04453-8



What are seaweeds and marine algae and where do we find them?

At the interface between land and sea

Most people think of seaweeds simply as the plant-like stuff that washes up on the seashore. On a beach in northern Europe, one typically might find a mixture of bladder wrack (Fucus vesiculosus) and a variety of seagrasses, such as eelgrass (Zostera marina). But for the biologist, bladder wrack and eelgrass are completely different organisms, almost as distinct as plants and animals. In the biological sense of the word, a true seaweed is actually a so-called alga.

The word algae is used to designate a large, varied, and heterogeneous group of organisms that, at present, do not have a clear-cut, formal taxonomic status. Some scientists have estimated that there might be between one and ten million different species, by far the majority of which have not yet been described. Just like plants, algae carry out photosynthesis, using sunlight to produce carbohydrates and energy. Of the 35,000 or more currently known species of algae, about half are aquatic, while the others are terrestrial. The aquatic algae are found in fresh and in salt water; it is the latter type, referred to as marine algae, with which we are concerned in this book.

Algae come in many different sizes. The smallest of them, the microalgae, are unicellular and make up what we call plant (or phyto) plankton. Some of them are related to animal plankton, bacteria, and fungi. The largest algae are multicellular organisms, growing to lengths of up to 60 meters, which can form enormous 'forests' in the ocean. These large marine algae, which are also referred to as macroalgae, are the ones that most people associate with the word seaweeds.

Seaweeds are found in all coastal areas of the world, in all climatic zones from the warm tropics to the icy polar regions. There are about 10,000 different species, but new and formerly unknown ones, sometimes living under extremely harsh conditions, are being discovered on an on-going basis. Fossil finds have shown that seaweeds are a form of life going back at least 500 million years and that algae, of one type or another, have existed on Earth for about three billion years. There is also much evidence that they have not changed significantly during this time.

Despite their name and even though they often resemble plants, seaweeds are only tenuously related to them. The tissue of the majority of seaweeds is built up very differently from that found in higher forms of plant life and their functional structure is dissimilar in many respects. They do not have leaves and stems in the botanical sense of the words, nor do they bloom, produce seeds, or set fruit. Seaweeds have no need for a root system to take in water or nutrients, as their cells are in direct contact with the surrounding water from which they derive their nourishment. Consequently, they do not grow roots. Some species have evolved a system for the internal transport of vital salts and the products of photosynthesis, but the majority are undifferentiated, with each cell being responsible for generating what it needs.

Seaweeds are to the sea what forests, undergrowth, bushes, and groundcover are on the land. They produce oxygen and release it into their surroundings while at the same time functioning as a physical structure that provides a habitat for a wealth of other organisms. Because they do not need roots, a few species, such as sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) and gulfweed (Sargassum), thrive as completely free-floating entities not unlike plankton. A notable example of this is found in the Sargasso Sea, which is home to an independent seaweed-based ecosystem far from any shore. The majority of marine algae, however, find their home in a transition area between the land and the sea, anchoring themselves to firm substrates, such as rock faces and stones, or to the seabed. Since all seaweed species need light in order to thrive, their distribution is determined by local light conditions and water turbidity.

Seaweeds of all sizes, growing under all conditions

In this book we will focus on those marine macroalgae that are multicellular organisms. It is noteworthy that some species of seaweeds are very small, only a few millimeters or centimeters in size, while others are gigantic. One species, the giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera), can regularly attain lengths of 60 meters and form enormous 'kelp forests' in the ocean. A large number of seaweed species have adapted to life in the intertidal zone, where twice daily they are exposed to the air. Others can survive only if they are constantly under water. It is estimated that seaweeds take up an area that corresponds to about 8% of the total area covered by the world's oceans.

Many species of seaweeds are surprisingly robust; some tolerate being dried out completely, being exposed to frost, or being subjected to great fluctuations in temperature. They endure the hardships caused by rapid ocean currents, violent tidal changes, foaming surf, and mighty waves pounding against cliffs and coastlines. Others are able to withstand considerable variations in salt concentrations, ranging from the open sea to areas of brackish water.

Seaweeds come in many colors

Traditionally, seaweeds are divided into three main groups: green algae, red algae, and brown algae. Even though this classification is unambiguous, one cannot always use color to determine how to classify a given seaweed species. This characteristic varies with the number and types of pigments it contains, as well as its tissue structure.

All species of seaweeds have chlorophyll granules that contain chlorophyll a. This substance is green and is part of the photosynthetic system, which converts sunlight to the chemical energy that fuels the metabolic functions of the seaweed. Nevertheless, its green color is often masked by a number of other pigments, resulting in brown, yellowish, and red tones. The color of green algae is overwhelmingly due to chlorophyll a. In the red algae, certain other pigments, called phycobilins, impart red, orange, and blue hues. Brown algae contain only a little chlorophyll and their brownish-yellow color is due to a pigment called fucoxanthin. A similar brownish pigment is found in those plants that take on the familiar red, yellow, and brown autumn colors when their otherwise dominant green chlorophyll a disappears.

Because phycobilins are water soluble, seaweeds, particularly the red algae, often lose some of their color when they are pried loose from the place where they are growing and set adrift in the sea. The green color fades more slowly because chlorophyll is insoluble in water.

Seaweeds throughout the ages

Seaweeds and human evolution

One of the characteristics of humans as a species is that our brains are large in proportion to our body mass. How did this come about? It is now generally acknowledged that the ancestors of present-day humans, the upright primates, did not evolve on dry, warm grasslands but in the damp, warm regions that formed the border between land and water. The British neurochemist Michael Crawford has pointed out that the all-important sources of essential and superunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids, especially dha (docosahexaenoic acid) and epa (eicosapentaenoic acid), can be found in sufficient quantities only in littoral areas, where fish and shellfish are abundant. These fatty acids, with which we are also familiar from fish oil and food supplements, are a vital requirement for the formation of a complex nervous system and a large brain. Hence, it was a determining factor in the evolution of modern humans that our ancestors,

Excerpted from Seaweeds by Ole G. Mouritsen. Copyright © 2013 by Ole G. Mouritsen. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Ole G. Mouritsen is professor of biophysics at the University of Southern Denmark. His previous books include Life—As a Matter of Fat and Sushi: Food for the Eye, the Body and the Soul.

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