The research, funded by the Japanese government, is yet more innovation from the Asian country that has consistently been at the forefront of nutrition research.
Professor Kazuo Miyashita and his team from Hokkaido University, focussed their studies on the compound fucoxanthin, a brownish pigment not found in significant quantities in green or red seaweed.
Since fucoxanthin is tightly bound to proteins in the seaweed and not easily absorbed in the form of whole seaweed, said Miyashita, this means that extracts for weight-loss supplements, or even pharmaceuticals, will be the most efficient way of delivering the active form of the fucoxanthin.
Miyashita and his team extracted fucoxanthin from Undaria pinnatifida, a type of kelp also known as wakame, to 200 rats and mice. They found that the obese animals fed the seaweed extract had weight losses of between five and ten per cent.
The compound was reported to stimulate a protein found in the fat that surrounds internal organs (white adipose tissue), called UCP1, which causes fat oxidation and conversion of energy to heat. Since the abdominal area contains abundant adipose tissue, the compound might be particularly effective at shrinking oversized guts, Miyashita said.
This is the first time that a natural food component has been shown to reduce fat by targeting the UCP1 protein, he said.
The pigment is also reported to have stimulated the liver to produce the omega-3 fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) at levels comparable to fish oil supplementation. Research has shown that DHA can reduce the levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, which is said to contribute to obesity and heart disease. No adverse side effects from fucoxanthin were reported in the mice and rats used in the study.
Whether such effects are reproducible in humans remains to be seen. Miyashita told attendees at the ACS meeting that human trials are planned, but cautioned that, if the results are positive, it may take three to five years before the anti-obesity pills are on the market.
"I hope that our study [points to a way to] help reduce obesity in the U.S. and elsewhere," said Miyashita.
Until the, people should continue to eat a well-balanced diet and get plenty of exercise, he said.
The research is in-keeping with Japan's innovative approach to nutrition.
US-based market researcher Paul Yamaguchi told NutraIngredients.com earlier this year that innovation is crucial to Japan's success in the global marketplace.
"Japan has to innovate to come to the global market for any industry," he said. "We cannot compete with China over low cost manufacturing, or with other developed countries in other ways. So we have to innovate in new areas to survive in the local market. Health is part of this."