SCOTLAND'S TOP food and farming brains are looking to seaweed as a potential breakthrough crop in the years ahead.

Despite plenty of historic seaweed use in agricultural communities around the country's shoreline, the abundant plants have rarely been the subject of full-scale commercial attention until now, when their nutritional benefits – and stunningly low environmental impact – have thrust them into the food sector spotlight.

At Scotland’s Rural College, work is now underway to develop products containing locally-harvested seaweed, with its SAC Consulting Food and Drink team highlighting its rich supply of minerals, protein, fibre and vitamins, and sparsity of calories and fat. Adding even more interest to the nutritional bundle is recent research suggesting that a seaweed-rich diet can counter depression and potentially mitigate Alzheimer’s disease.

SAC consultant Alistair Trail said that seaweed could offer 'health by stealth' as a salt alternative, as it is particularly high in the healthy minerals potassium and magnesium, that guarantee savoury flavour with 92% less sodium than table salt.

“Seaweed is very important environmentally and historically," explained Mr Trail. "Traditionally it has been harvested on the Scottish shoreline, by hand and used in the production of things like soap and glass and is also gathered by crofters for use as fertiliser. So far it has been harvested at a small scale, but kelp grows abundantly off the west coast of Scotland and around its islands and there is considerable potential for utilising this natural resource.

“Seaweed’s health-giving properties have given it superfood status in recent years and it grows abundantly on our shores offering some interesting opportunities. We have been approached by various businesses to look at ways to incorporate it into different food types and how to best market it. The challenge is to make it enjoyable to eat, but it is very versatile."

SRUC development chef Mark Barker has worked with Highland Crackers to develop a healthy cracker to meet the criteria of the 'paleo' diet, using seaweed flakes as an alternative to table salt. Made with sunflower, flax and pumpkin seed, two flavours were created using smoked and unsmoked Kombu Kelp, harvested from a 40km stretch of seabed around the East Neuk of Fife by Mara Seaweed.

SAC Consulting has also developed a seaweed drink with Lighthouse Seaweed, using a blend of Scottish fruit, vegetables and seaweed to produce a sweet and healthy drink.

Mr Trail noted that seaweed had sustainability credentials that no other plant crop could touch – it requires no land, no fertiliser and no freshwater. Current research also suggested that seaweed is a rich source of phytochemicals and antioxidants, and has anti micro bacterial properties that could help reduce the need for chemical preservatives in food manufacturing. As a natural additive, it could be used to prevent the lipid oxidation which is the main reason for food spoiling.

"Commercial firms are expressing an interest in collecting much larger quantities directly from the forests growing off our coastline which provides opportunity for the growth of Scotland’s seaweed industry," he reported.

“Hebridean Seaweed is investing nearly £7 million in an extension to their factory to produce dried Asco seaweed for human and animal food, and seaweed extract in liquid and powder form for the fertiliser market."