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Red Marine Algae Facts

By Walt Pickut

Dine at a traditional Chinese or Vietnamese restaurant and you will probably find red marine algae in some delicious form on your menu. Enjoy good old American ice cream for dessert, and an extract of red marine algae is there, too. Scientists at the University of Maryland College of Chemical and Life Sciences identify over 4000 species of red marine algae, or Rhodophyta. A photosynthetic red pigment, phycoerythrin, allows them to thrive in deep waters where sunlight is scarce.


Kelp, a common name for a number or red and brown, leafy seaweeds, has been a staple food, often called nori in Asia, for thousands of years. Nutritionists at cajuncruiser.com call red marine algae a modern superfood and quote a traditional Chinese medical scholar, writing in 600 B.C., describing it as "a delicacy fit for the most honorable guest, even for the king himself." Japanese ocean farmers have perfected nori cultivation over the last 300 years. The delicacy is prepared as a vegetable soup, a popular salad, and pickled in vinegar.

Natives of the State of Maine, in the United States, harvest a kind of red marine algae called Irish moss from the sub-tidal waters along their seacoast. The University of Maryland researchers report that early Maine settlers discovered that Irish moss cooked with milk, with suitable flavors and sugar, made a tasty jellied dessert. French culinary artists adopted this process into their cuisine as "blanc mange."

The combination of milk protein with the algal polysaccharides produce carrageenan, a common thickening agent. Modern uses include ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate milk, thick fruit syrups and many others. Pharmaceutical gels, lotions and toothpaste also benefit from carrageenan.


Medical researchers at MedlinePlus, in a July 2010 report, describe scientific investigations into the traditional Asian medical virtues ascribed to various species of red marine algae. Anti-bacterial and anti-fungal activities, anti-coagulant, or blood thinning, actions, and antioxidant values have all been promoted by traditional medical practitioners. These actions have been detected to variable, sometimes only slight, degrees in test-tube studies and some laboratory animals, but controlled studies in humans are almost entirely lacking. Some anti-cancer activity is also seen in laboratory tests, but also remain unconfirmed in humans. Red algae contain variable, sometimes high, amounts of iodine that made it useful traditionally to treat goiter, a thyroid condition known to result from iodine deficiency.

All traditional medical uses of red marine algae are classified as "Unclear scientific evidence for use." Some uses are known to be dangerous. Iodine content of the algae is highly variable; overdose is possible and interference with established thyroid therapy is likely. Treating cancer with unproven traditional remedies in unpredictable and potentially life-threatening. Do not attempt to use red marine algae remedies for any condition without careful consultation with your doctor.


Enjoy the culinary artistry and practical applications of red marine algae without fear. A common misconception is that the deadly "red tides" that occasionally sweep across bays and seas, killing sea life and sickening fishers and bathers, is caused by these useful seaweeds. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control, CDC, explains red tides for the sea-going population. Red tide is caused by rare and explosive over-growths, or blooms, of a single-celled, marine organism called a dinoflagellate which turns the water red and exudes powerful toxins into the air and water. It is not red marine algae.

The CDC has detected traces of trichloroethylene, a toxic chemical used industrially in degreasing operations, liberated into the air and sub-tropical ocean water by some species of rhodophyta. However, the amounts are quite small and CDC scientists have not detected any ill effects attributable to this release, and have issued no warnings concerning this.

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