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Thursday 18 January 2018

Microscopic marine algae - a food that reduces depression

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney
Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney

Darragh McCullough and Aideen Sheehan

FOODS that combat depression are among the cutting-edge projects Irish scientists will research over the next few years.

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney has announced details of €26m in research awards for 51 projects aimed at boosting the scientific credentials of the Irish food and agriculture industry.

A microscopic marine algae that could be used as a food ingredient to prevent or reduce the effects of depression will be the subject of a four-year trial due to kick off next week.

A team of researchers led by Cork-based Professor Catherine Stanton will investigate how fats from algae can be used to combat depression.

Research carried out at University College Cork on rats has already shown that lower levels of Omega 3 fatty acids are linked with a higher incidence of depression. "We know that there is a link between Omega 3 and mental state, but it's not categorically proven in humans yet," said Prof Stanton.

While fish are a source of Omega 3, the researcher said that there was a need for a different source of these oils.

"The reality is that people don't eat enough fish. But even if they did, it may not be the most sustainable source of these oils if fish stocks are depleting," said Prof Stanton.

The researchers also believe that these polyunsaturated fatty acids would have a wider use if they were sourced from algae.

"There could be a huge demand for this type of ingredient. But if there was a risk that it might contain traces of heavy metals that could in theory come from fish oils, then it would be off the menu," said Prof Stanton.

Instead, she envisages large land-based water tanks where the microscopic algae could be propagated in a controlled environment, eliminating contamination risks.

The microscopic algae are preferred over macro-algae, such as seaweed, because they contain higher levels of the target fats.

An online tool to assess people's diets is also being funded as part of a Europe-wide scheme to see if personalised nutrition can improve health. The research is being led by Dr Eileen Gibney of UCD.

Mr Coveney said the importance of continued investment could not be overestimated.

New systems for sterilising vegetables and salad, the impact of different types of beef on human health, improved soil quality and farm safety are among the research schemes.

The impact of forest felling on the Kerry Slug will also be studied at the cost of €140,000, while a bird diversity and afforestation study will cost €202,000.

Irish Independent

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