Supplementing your diet with seaweed could relieve medical problems such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), metabolic syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, say researchers at the Nelson-based Cawthron Institute.

Cawthron is leading a new research programme – He tipu moana he oranga tangata: Revealing karengo as a high-value functional food – in collaboration with Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and Wakatū Incorporation. The research is investigating the potential of a modern, high-value industry based around karengo – a native edible seaweed.

The facility’s Dr Tom Wheeler says hundreds of varieties of native seaweed grow wild along New Zealand’s coast, but little is known about their composition or bioactive potential. “Our research will reveal the nutritional profile and potential health benefits of karengo, to help Māori enterprises identify the most promising karengo species for development into high-value extracts.

“Karengo is related to nori, a popular Japanese seaweed that’s high in protein with health-promoting antioxidant effects, so this sets some expectations around what nutritional treasure we might find through our analysis,” he says.

The research will identify the species with the most promising health-promoting bio-activities for relieving chronic inflammatory conditions such as COPD, metabolic syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.


HVN National Science Challenge is funding the two-year programme, and its Professor Richard Mithen says harvesting karengo in a sustainable manner will lead to the development of new foods to benefit the health of New Zealanders and offer innovative export opportunities for business.

With more than 250 scientists, laboratory technicians, researchers and specialist staff from 26 countries, Cawthron is New Zealand’s largest independent science organisation, offering a broad spectrum of services to help protect the environment and support sustainable development of primary industries.

Meanwhile, seaweed has become the ‘star ingredient’ in Alaska and Canada, where kelp farming is already a thriving player in a massive global industry worth an estimated $6bn a year. Thousands of tonnes of different varieties of the plant are harvested around the world annually – with China and Japan the major exporters.

And the industry’s likely to be fuelled by growing interest in sustainability. Climate change – in addition to health awareness factors – is driving the movement towards plant-based diets. Studies have also demonstrated the effectiveness of seaweed in animal feed as a way of reducing methane emissions. It is also being tested for properties that can mimic fossil fuels or plastics.