The Author, Lynn Cornish, is the Seed Stock Manager for Cultivated Seaweeds in the Food Science R&D Department, Human and Animal Wellness™ Division of Acadian Seaplants Limited.
The dictionary definition of ‘Agriculture’ is: “the science or practice of farming, including cultivation of the soil for the growing of crops and the rearing of animals to provide food, wool, and other products”. Obviously, without agriculture, the majority of people on our planet would perish from starvation.
However, our human ancestors were surviving very well before agricultural practices became commonplace, which began about 10,000 years ago. Archeologists have pointed out that the increase in size and sophistication of the human brain occurred approximately 2.5 to 2.0 million years ago…so how did our ancestors survive so well over this very long time period?
The most widely accepted theory is that they were foragers who ate whatever berries and roots they could find, and as early Homo sapiens made their way to coastal environments from the great savannahs, foods became more available. Shellfish, birds’ eggs, and of course seaweeds were plentiful, and easily accessible by all family members, including women and children.
Such a diet contains all the important nutrients that are essential for human growth and development, and access to such a long-term and stable supply of these may very well have kick-started the impressive cognitive capacity of modern-day humans. Iodine, zinc, iron, magnesium, B vitamins, and polyunsaturated fatty acids, especially omega-3s and omega-6s, among others, are absolutely essential for human health and wellness. A deficiency in any of these can lead to impaired cognition, a lack of vitality, anemia and any number of other health-related conflicts.
Ironically, today, diet-related risk factors for the numerous pathologies leading to premature death from various non-communicable diseases are increasingly prevalent. These include obesity, hypertension, endothelial dysfunction, diabetes, psychological stresses, and neurological disorders, to name just a few. It seems we have a fundamental problem here on our planet and it is related to our food supply and its quality.
How do we know this? Well, highlights of the science review, which appeared in the Journal of Marine Science and Engineering titled: “The Animal Kingdom, Agriculture,…and Seaweeds” provide evidence of a significant loss of dietary diversity with the advent of agriculture. The proliferation and readily available, high-calorie, nutrient-poor, ultra-processed foods underlies our ongoing health issues. Here’s the link to the article: https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1312/8/8/574
Basic nutrition in the form of food is comprised of protein, carbohydrates, and fat, but what of all those important, perhaps even mysterious, phytonutrients that are more difficult to characterize as to their effects on human health and wellness? There is a plethora of research regarding the unique and beneficial bioactive compounds in seaweeds, although human trials are still greatly under-represented. However, studies show, for example, increased antioxidant capacity and enhanced food quality in spinach grown with applications of seaweed extract. Other studies include improving the diversity of gut microbes in animals fed seaweeds, enriching numbers of good bacteria and reducing the bad guys (prebiotic effects), improvements in egg quality of laying hens, and in all cases, enhanced health, wellness, vitality and physical conditioning of agricultural animals fed seaweeds or seaweed components.
Some of these benefits indubitably carry over to the humans who consume these agricultural products, but as always more research is needed. Seaweeds are a fundamental part of our long evolutionary history and to reclaim their benefits we absolutely need to have them both directly, and indirectly, as significant components of our diets.