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Last Updated: Monday, 26 September 2005, 23:42 GMT 00:42 UK
Burgers' seaweed 'health boost'
Could seaweed make this part of a healthy diet?
Adding a seaweed extract to junk food could make it healthier without changing the taste, scientists say.

Newcastle University researchers say adding the tasteless extract, called alginate, would increase the fibre content of pies, burgers and cakes.

This, they say, would mean people could still enjoy the foods they like, but eat more healthily.

The research has been published in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.

It would be a tragedy if we simply gave up trying to help people make healthy diet and lifestyle choices
Nigel Denby, British Dietetic Association

High-fibre diets, including foods such as brown bread and fruit and vegetables, have been shown to help reduce the incidence of life threatening illnesses.

Alginate is high in fibre, so it can boost the fibre content of foods.

But it also has other properties and uses. The researchers say it could be used as an anti-obesity treatment, because it forms a "lump" in the stomach and therefore helps you feel full.

Alginate is already in widespread use by the food industry as a gelling agent and to thicken the frothy head of some lagers.

'A natural product'

The Newcastle team looked at two brown-coloured seaweeds called Lessonia and Laminaria, which are found in the Far East, South America and parts of Norway and Scotland.

The alginate is extracted from brown seaweed

The seaweed is processed in the laboratory to produce alginate - a tasteless and odourless off-white coloured powder - that can then be added to food to enhance fibre content.

Professor Jeff Pearson, a member of the research team, said: "We're just not eating enough fibre, yet we need this to keep us healthy.

"The problem is that a lot of people don't enjoy many of the foods that are high in fibre, like fruit and vegetables, yet to consume the recommended daily amount of fibre they would have to eat a lot of these types of foods.

"We believe it's hard to change people's habits and that the most practical solution is to improve the food they do eat.

"With a burger, for example, you would simply remove some of the fat and replace it with the seaweed extract, which is an entirely natural product from a sustainable resource.

"You'd have a healthier burger and it's unlikely to taste any different."

Taste test

He added: "This compound can also be added to any number of foods, such as synthetic creams and yoghurts.

"With pork pies, one of my favourite foods, it could replace the gelatine which usually covers the meat, as the seaweed extract has gelling properties too."

Professor Pearson, who has already made loaves of bread containing the seaweed extract, which passed the 'taste test' with colleagues, added: "Bread is probably the best vehicle to reach the general population because most people eat it.

"Adding the seaweed extract could quadruple the amount of fibre in white bread."

Nigel Denby, of the British Dietetic Association: "Replacing one ingredient for another in order to make a food more healthy can be a useful way of improving the food's overall nutritional profile.

"Often, the problem with this approach is that the food loses some of its taste qualities which make it a popular choice in the first place - healthier food is only healthy if people actually eat it!

"This work looks promising and it will be interesting to see how the team move forward and develop the use of alginates outside of the laboratory."

Dr Denby added: "As technology brings us findings such as these, it would be a tragedy if we simply gave up trying to help people make healthy diet and lifestyle choices.

"While this process can be slow, it is ultimately the most powerful way to improve the diets of population groups and as with any dietary dilemma, there is never just one quick fix."

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