Saccharina latissima is a type of brown marine algae of the family Laminariaceae that grows in cold water as a winter crop.
Its common name in English is sugar kelp. One reason for this name is that when dried, a sweet-tasting powder forms on the fronds. It is also known as sea belt or Devil's Apron because of the shape of the fronds, which resemble lasagna noodles – but giant lasagna noodles, because each plant can grow up to 3–4 meters in length.
In Japan, Saccharina latissima is commonly referred to as Kombu, but this is confusing because that name also applies to many other edible species of Laminariaceae. So its precise name in Japanese would be Karafuto-kombu.
Geographical spread & harvest season in Europe
Sugar kelp grows naturally in Europe along the Atlantic coasts, as far south as Portugal and as far north as Novaya Zemlya, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean near northern Russia. Worldwide, it can also be found (and cultivated) along the eastern coasts of America down to New Jersey, along the Pacific coasts, in the Bering Straits, and near Japan.
It grows fastest from late winter to spring, at a rate of about 1.1 cm per day, although growth rates of up to 4.87 cm per day have been recorded. Growth then declines from June onwards, and may cease in late summer. This seasonal growth pattern results in annual growth rings or lines, which can be used to determine the age of the plants.
Sugar kelp grows naturally, but also lends itself well to cultivation. When grown commercially, sugar kelp plants are often attached to long ropes, rather than rocks or other ocean substrata.
Saccharina latissima also lends itself well to partial harvesting, which means that the long ropes of cultivated plants can be trimmed, versus being harvested in their entirety. This means that there can be spring harvests of significant biomass, and then later summer harvests as well. The ability to generate multiple harvests from each round of seedling deployment makes sugar kelp an ideal seaweed crop for cultivation.
Exact nutritional values of sugar kelp depend on which month in which it was harvested, but on the whole it contains an impressive variety of nutrients.
In addition to iodine and iron, kelp is a rich source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, folate, copper, zinc, nickel, and vitamin K. Per 100 grams of dried kelp, sugar kelp contains approximately 69 grams of carbohydrates and 10 mg of protein.
Uses in food
Already widely cultivated and consumed in Asia, sugar kelp is becoming increasingly popular worldwide as a food source because it is high in fiber and minerals. In human diets, sugar kelp is used in soups, and salads, or as a sweetener or thickener in other food products. It contains ten times as many minerals as plants grown in soil, and is high in antioxidants that may help protect cardiovascular health and prevent cancer. Some of the potential benefits of sugar kelp for health include:
- Improved thyroid health. Your thyroid gland produces hormones that help regulate the body's metabolism (the process that turns food into energy). It requires iodine to function properly, because the body does not manufacture it, and must get it from your diet. If you don't get enough iodine, you can develop a condition known as hypothyroidism. Sugar kelp contains large quantities of iodine, and thus can help to maintain health.
- Prevention of anemia. If you develop anemia, your body doesn't get enough oxygen, because of a shortage of red blood cells. The result can be fatigue, dizziness, and weakness. Sugar kelp is moderately rich in iron, which can reduce the possibility of developing anemia.
- Control of diabetes. Sugar kelp contains vanadium, a mineral that has been shown in early studies to help people with Type 2 diabetes because it helps to regulate blood sugar.
- Weight management. This is a huge problem, because according to studies by the World Health Organization, an estimated 1.9 billion adults and 41 million children are overweight or obese. Sugar kelp contains fucoxanthin, a carotenoid that increases production of omega-3 fatty acid, DHA, and the protein that controls fat metabolism. Scientists at the University of Connecticut have found promising results in mouse studies that hint at sugar kelp's promise in controlling weight. Mice were put on high-fat and low-fat diets, with or without sugar kelp being added as a supplement. The mice who ate the kelp supplements — even if they were on the high-fat diet — showed lower body weight and healthier liver and adipose tissue.
Uses other than food
Dried kelp in powdered form is extensively used as an additive to animal feed, where it has been shown to improve both the quantity and quality of meat and other products. Kelp also helps to reduce methane emissions from cattle, which in turn helps to reduce greenhouse gases and improve the environment. In agriculture, sugar kelp extract in liquid or powdered form is often used as a fertilizer.
Sugar kelp is being investigated and used by the cosmetics industry for its value as a possible UV protectant, and for skin problems such as dryness and loss of elasticity and firmness. ACTIPHYTE™ (Laminaria Saccharina Extract) can reduce oil secretion on the skin surface, which helps eliminate shine and provides a matte finish, and the polysaccharides help reduce inflammation in skin that is prone to acne.
Another interesting non-food application of sugar kelp is known as the “Loliware straw”, which makes drinking straws that “looks, feels and acts like plastic,” but will disappear through natural processes or composting.
As you can see, the potential uses for sugar kelp are varied, plentiful, and they fit exceptionally well with our changing view of sustainable products for the future.
Biological Traits Information Catalogue, "BIOTIC Species Information for Saccarina latissima" Accessed 25 March 2021, 29 March 2021. http://www.marlin.ac.uk/biotic/browse.php?sp=4222
Holdt, S. L., Marinho, G. S., Angelidaki, I. "Seaweed potentials" Technical University of Denmark 5th Nordic Seaweed Conference, 7-8 October 2017. http://www.kombiopdraet.dk/media/6792/Seaweed%20potentials-composition-KOMBI-Grenaa-SLHoldt-081015.pdf
Northwest Fisheries Science Center, "Milford Lab Takes on Sugar Kelp Cultivation" National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, US Department of Commerce, Updated 13 January 2021. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/milford-lab-takes-sugar-kelp-cultivation
Healthline. "Benefits of Kelp" https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/benefits-of-kelp (site down at time of writing, quotes from Google)
Nazario, B., MD. "Health Benefits of Kelp," WebMD Medical Reference, updated 16 September 2020, accessed 23 March 2021. https://www.webmd.com/diet/health-benefits-kelp#1
OceanSource. "Are Kelp and Seaweed the Same Thing?" OpenSource@Medium.com. https://medium.com/@oceansource/are-kelp-and-seaweed-the-same-thing-9dc898f7b435
Sheldon, J. M., "Nutritional sciences researcher studies sugar kelp to prevent and treat obesity" University of Connecticut College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, 10 December 2019. https://naturally.uconn.edu/2019/12/10/nutritional-sciences-researcher-studies-sugar-kelp-to-prevent-and-treat-obesity/#
Gillon, L-A. "From the sea to the skin: How algae adaptations benefit skin & hair" Wesource. https://www.scc-quebec.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/SCC-Quebec-From-the-sea-to-the-skin-1.pdf
The Wildlife Trusts. Sugar Kelp. https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wildlife-explorer/marine/seaweeds-and-seagrass/sugar-kelp
SpecialChem. The Material Selection Platform. ACTIPHYTE™ Sugar Kelp. https://cosmetics.specialchem.com/product/i-lipotec-actiphyte-sugar-kelp
Loliware. Meet the Loliware Straw. https://www.loliware.com/the-straw