Just add alginate.

Just add alginate.

Could the future of healthy food be underwater? British researchers recently reported promising potential for alginate-a tasteless, odorless powder extracted from brown seaweed species. Alginate is already widely used by the food industry, mostly as a thickener or stabilizer (say, helping just-poured beer keep a foamy head longer). But that's only dipping a toe in an ocean of possibilities, according to the report's lead author, Iain Brownlee, a physiologist at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England. In fact, he posits, alginate might someday help turn burgers and milkshakes into near-health food.

"Alginate is soluble fiber, by definition," Brownlee explains, so adding it to a food boosts the healthfulness quotient considerably. It also slows the rate at which the food is absorbed in the gut, prolonging fullness and producing slower rises in blood sugar-"all useful for weight management and diabetes," he adds.

The benefits could go beyond mere fiber-boosting. When Brownlee's group fed rats a diet supplemented with alginate, they found that the protective mucus layer lining the rats' lower intestinal tracts became thicker and more resilient. "The mucus layer is the first line of defense against damaging agents in the gut," explains Brownlee, who is bullish on alginate's potential-"possibly helping in ulcerative colitis or even colorectal cancer."

But perhaps alginate's best asset is its chameleonlike ability to blend into foods unnoticeably. The researchers envision it in yogurts and creamy desserts, pasta or bread doughs, or even fast-food burgers-replacing some fat while boosting fiber.

Could alginate make its way to home kitchens? Someday, perhaps. When physiologist Jeff Pearson posted his recipe for homemade, high-fiber bread on the web (www.algibake.com) demand quickly outstripped supplies.