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Better Burgers, More Healthful Hot Dogs: Could A Pinch Of Seaweed Be The Answer?

Undaria pinnatifida "wakame."
Nicolas Le Corre
Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Undaria pinnatifida "wakame."

Next-generation hot dogs and hamburgers may come with an unusual ingredient: seaweed. That's the goal of a group of scientists trying to make these red-meat-rich, unhealthful foods more healthful by adding nutrient-packed seaweed, a staple in Japanese and other Asian cuisines.

But it's still early days of research. The Madrid-based team has been exploring what happens to the taste, texture and smell of meat products when they replace some of the fat and salt content with dried and powdered seaweed. They summarize their progress in a report published last month in the journal Food Research International.

So far, the scientists have primarily experimented with adding three species of seaweed — sea spaghetti, wakame and nori — to different meats. These seaweeds are already common ingredients in a number of European and Asian dishes. Sea spaghetti is used in salads in coastal areas of western Europe, wakame is popular in miso soup, and nori is used in sushi rolls.

According to one team member, Susana Cofrades of the Institute of Food Science, Technology, and Nutrition in Madrid, the taste of seaweed-sprinkled meats depends on which processed meat they are trying to transform, as well as the type of seaweed they use.

It's easier to mask the seaweed taste in hot dogs, which typically include a lot of other flavorful ingredients. Hamburgers, on the other hand, are a different beast, she says, since they are often just flavored with salt.

And taste testers tend to prefer the milder flavors of wakame and sea spaghetti over nori. "Nori is the least acceptable," Cofrades says. "Not only because of its intense flavor but also because it imparts a dark color."

Seaweed is already beginning to catch on as a nutritional powerhouse in the United States. People are tossing it in salads and pasta dishes and snacking on it dried (think chips).

It has a number of potentially health-boosting contents such as dietary fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. And the scientists in Spain hope to harness the nutrition in seaweed to possibly turn hot dogs and hamburgers into health-promoting foods.

But the exact health benefits of eating seaweed-enriched processed meats are still unclear, says Sarah Johnson, director of the Functional Foods and Human Health Laboratory at Colorado State University, who wasn't involved in the Spanish team's studies.

She points out that the scientists have so far only been able to add enough seaweed to make up about 5 percent of the meat product. "The authors talk a lot about these seaweeds and the nutrients they contain and ... the health benefits," she explains. "But in order to achieve these therapeutic, almost treatment effects, you have to think about consuming something in a large-enough quantity and regularly."

"But it's an interesting concept," she says. "I think that there could definitely be a niche for this." And it's something that this team and others should explore more, she adds.

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Carolyn Beans