Junk food could be made healthier by adding an extract of an exotic type of seaweed, say British scientists.
The highly-fibrous seaweed extract, alginate, could be used to increase the fibre content of cakes, burgers and other types of food which usually contain large amounts of fat and a low degree of healthy nutrients, say the team.
Scientists at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne publish their findings in the academic journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, in a paper detailing alginate's many benefits to the body. They believe it will be a valuable weapon in the international battle against obesity, diabetes and heart disease and diseases such as bowel cancer.
The research paper examines the properties of a brown-coloured seaweed called Lessonia and Laminaria, found in the Far East, South America and parts of Norway and Scotland. The seaweed is processed in the laboratory to produce the extract, alginate, a carbohydrate compound which is a tasteless and odourless off-white coloured powder.
The paper shows that alginate has been proved to strengthen mucus, the body's natural protection of the gut wall, can slow digestion down, and can slow the uptake of nutrients in the body.
Moreover, alginate is high in fibre and has been proved to be palatable and safe, and as such is already in widespread use by the food industry as a gelling agent, to reconstitute powdered foods, and to thicken the frothy head of premium lagers.
Studies have shown that eating high-fibre diets can help reduce the incidence of diseases such as bowel cancer. Good sources of fibre are fruit and vegetables, brown bread and cereals like bran flakes.
One of the research team, Professor Jeff Pearson, of Newcastle University's Institute for Cell and Molecular Biosciences, 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.
"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."
Prof 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."