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The cultural history and health benefits of eating dulse.

The cultural history and health benefits of eating dulse. 2017-10-04T22:08:21+00:00

author: Dr. Kevin Curran

published: 8-4-2016

What is dulse?

Dulse is a red algae that grows along the northern coastlines of the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean. It attaches to rocks in the inter-tidal zone and lives comfortably among the breaking waves.

Europeans have been eating this ancient sea vegetable for the past 1,500 years. Early farmers in Iceland and Ireland harvested strands of dulse from their rocky shorelines and garnished otherwise bland meals with this nutritious red seaweed (Indergaard, 1991).

Whether those early foragers knew it or not, that primitive red garnish was providing them with the equivalent of a multi-vitamin.

Modern-day food fanatics are just beginning to appreciate the many health benefits of dulse.

We now know this ancient red algae is densely packed with vitamins, minerals, protein, antioxidants and fiber.

In this article, we first explore the biological background and cultural history of dulse. We then describe its health benefits in more detail.

Seaweed dulse flakes health benefits

photo by: Cwmhiraeth

Dulse use a short stem to attach to rocks. Broad, red-colored leaves flow out into the breaking waves.

Biological background of dulse

The scientific name for Atlantic dulse is Palmaria palmata. As a member of the red algae division, dulse is currently grouped within the Archaeplastida. The Archaeplastids are a sub-group of eukaryotes, which also includes the land plants.

Red algae use red pigment molecules in their chloroplasts to help them perform photosynthesis. This allows them to produce their own energy (and gives them their distinctive red color).

These plant-like seaweeds have been creeping around our planet for a long time. In fact, red algae are one of the oldest groups of eukaryotic creatures. A 1.2 billion year old fossil found in Canada is thought to be a very early version of a red algae. (Butterfield, 2000)

This deep history tells us that red algae are very successful at living on earth. They’ve been around awhile and avoided extinction. So…they must be doing something right.

Brief history of humans eating red algae

Historical records indicate that the Chinese, Japanese and Europeans have been eating red algae for the past 2,000 years.

In 600 BC, a Chinese author named Sze Teu wrote a book describing how seaweed was prepared as special gifts for kings. During the Greek and Roman empire – seaweeds growing in the Mediterranean Sea were routinely used as medicine. In fact, as early as 100 BC, records indicate that ancient Greeks used a species of red algae to treat infections from parasitic worms.

In Japan, by approximately 800 AD, at least 6 types of seaweed were commonly used in traditional Japanese meals.

When did human first begin to eat dulse?

The first recorded use of dulse dates back to 961 AD in Iceland. According to the Icelandic Sagas, sol was a highly valued food source. Sol is the old Norse word for dulse.

Dulse was so commonly eaten that this red algae made an appearance in Icelandic legal documents. Iceland’s oldest law-book, written in 1150 AD, mentions that it is:

…perfectly legal to collect and eat another man’s dulse when traveling across his property.

THE USES OF SEAWEEDS IN ICELAND S. V. HALLSSON

 

At some point, the habit of eating dulse spread westward across Europe.

Records from 500 AD indicate Christian monks in Ireland and Scotland were regularly eating and enjoying dulse. 1,400 years ago, monks following St. Columba harvested this nutritious red algae from the rocky shoreline of the British Isles. St. Columba is the Irish abbot credited with spreading Christianity into Scotland (Indergaard, 1991).

Interestingly, the name dulse is derived from the old Gaelic word dillisk.

So, in summary. . .

People have been eating red algae for a long time.

And, most importantly, if you find yourself wandering across a private beach in Iceland, feel free to snack on the local dulse.

dulse flakes

Illustration by J.R. Skelton

St. Columba followed by his monks.

According to legend, this Irish abbot enjoyed eating the dulse while walking through Scotland in 500 A.D.

Preparing dulse

Dulse can be prepared fresh, fried or else dried into flakes and sprinkled on salads and soups. When eaten fresh, dulse has a pleasant texture. Its slightly chewy, but certainly easy to eat.

As you may expect, this seaweed has a salty taste, much like nori.

I like to eat smoked dulse in between meals. However, my favorite preparation is fried. I lightly oil a pan, then heat up flattened strips of dulse for 3-4 minutes, stirring the strips around regularly.

This pan-fry treatment crisps up the dulse and makes it delicious.

Once crispy, you can put together a DLT – a dulse, lettuce and tomato.

maine seaweed

I lightly fried this dulse in oil. The chewy texture is now replaced with a crisp, bacon-like texture.

Why would you want to go through the trouble of preparing and eating seaweed?

Well, as mentioned above, dulse is packed full of nutrients.

Below – we’ll describe the various health benefits of dulse.

dulse flakes benefits

Dried leaves of applewood smoked dulse.

The many health benefits of eating dulse.

Minerals

Dulse is packed with many of the minerals that humans need to consume every day. A single serving of dulse provides us a rich supply of Iron, Potassium, Calcium, Chromium and Magnesium.

Calcium, iron and magnesium all contribute to robust bone density. Maintaining bone density becomes more important as we get older and negotiate osteoporosis. We need plenty of iron to keep our muscles and red blood cells happy. Potassium is a well-known vaso-dilator, which means this mineral helps to reduce the strain on our arteries caused by high blood pressure.

Vitamins

Dulse is a rich source of Vitamin B-12, Vitamin A, Vitamin B6 and Vitamin C.

Vitamin B-12 is mostly found in animal-based foods. So, if you’re vegan, you may rely on dulse as your B-12 source. Vitamin A helps build and maintain teeth, bones, skin and soft tissue. Research has also shown Vitamin A slows the development of cataracts in our eyes. Vitamin C is a key component of our immune system. It also helps us with our white blood cell count, collagen production and acts as an antioxidant.

Omega-3 and Omega-6

In general, red algae are enriched for polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).

Dulse contains 2 of the more interesting PUFAs: omega-3 and omega-6. PUFAs are fatty acids that contain more than one double bond in their backbone structure. The actions of omega-3 and omega-6 in our body are best characterized by their interactions with each other. They’re difficult to understand when considered separately. That said, these omega acids are thought to help regulate multiple body functions: including blood clotting, arthritis, blood pressure as well as the proper functioning of the brain and nervous system.

Protein

I was surprised when I learned that a 3.5 ounce serving of fresh dulse provides about 21.5 grams of protein. 21 grams is a whopping 43% of the daily requirement of protein, as set by the FDA. So, eating dulse is a nice way to compliment the protein you may be getting from meat and land-based vegetables.

Fiber

As you might expect from a seaweed, dulse contains a good amount of dietary fiber. You get 16 grams of fiber in a 2 ounce serving of dulse. Dietary fiber helps us regulate our digestive process. This fiber bulks up our stool and, in general, facilitates a better experience in the bathroom.

A word of caution regarding iodine

Like most seaweeds, dulse also contains high amounts of iodine. Iodine is an essential mineral for the thyroid. We need iodine for the proper functioning of our thyroid gland.

However, if you eat too much dulse – you can possibly upset the balance of hormones in your thyroid. So, like all things, eat dulse in moderation. People suffering from hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism should probably avoid eating dulse altogether.

If you have any questions regarding dulse and your personal iodine intake levels, consult a trained physician or dietician.

What’s the story with this bacon flavored dulse up in Oregon?

Ok, this story definitely caught our attention.

A biologist at Oregon State University has developed a patented strain of dulse that, apparently… tastes like bacon.

For the past 15 years, Chris Langdon – an aquaculture researcher – has been growing dulse in a laboratory at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. The reason he grows dulse is because he uses this red algae as a food source for his abalone. Chris studies abalone.

At some point, Chris developed a new, patented strain of the Pacific dulse (Palmaria mollis). The initial intrigue behind this new dulse strain centered on its fast growth rate and morphology (personal communication with C. Langdon). However, in time, Chris and his colleagues noticed additional features with this strain. Not only did Chris observe that his abalone liked to eat his new dulse strain, but he realized that he also enjoyed the flavor. In fact, Chris noticed that his dulse strain and other dulse strains taste like bacon once fried.

Chris has since joined forces with Jason Ball, a food scientist. Their mission is to expand the culinary possibilities of dulse. Jason Ball is testing lots of applications for their new strain: dulse veggie burgers, trail mix and even a dulse beer. According to Ball…

Pan-fried dulse can be light and crispy with a savory saltiness, like bacon.

What is equally appealing is that Chris Langdon’s dulse strain can be effectively grown in tanks of seawater. This keeps the quality of the dulse consistent and allows the algae to be harvested year round. More importantly, this method of cultivation doesn’t involve damaging the fragile inter-tidal habitat.

Stay tuned with this story and we’ll let you know when we try our first bottle of dulse lager..

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heath benefits of dulse seaweed

The author and his dog, Glacier. Hiding from the sun in Anza Borrego State Park.

References

  1. Indergaard, M. and Minsaas, J. 1991. 2 “Animal and human nutrition.” in Guiry, M.D. and Blunden, G. 1991. Seaweed Resources in Europe: Uses and Potential. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-92947-6
  2. Butterfield (2000). “Bangiomorpha pubescens n. gen., n. sp.: implications for the evolution of sex, multicellularity, and the Mesoproterozoic/Neoproterozoic radiation of eukaryotes”. Paleobiology. 26 (3): 386–404. doi:10.1666/0094-8373(2000) ISSN 0094-8373.

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