Seawater: not for drinking but ready for cooking

Néstor Cenizo

In a video seen in 2016 on the Spanish television program Espejo Público a man named Ángel Gracia declares: “We are isotonic seawater. What’s in the sea is what we have inside of us and originally.” Then the reporter asks him: “Do you drink it regularly?” And the answer is yes, Ángel Gracia and the people who are with him drink it right there. “We drink it because seawater is not contaminated. It’s impossible for germs from the land to contaminate seawater through osmosis,” answers Gracia, who says he is the creator of ‘the dolphin diet.’

This man is perhaps an extreme example of a trend: seawater is today used as a dietary supplement and for cooking, but there are some people who even consider it to have almost miraculous curative powers and say it should be consumed directly. So we’re going to explain what seawater is good for and what properties have not been demonstrated –and thus constitute a myth without any scientific solidity whatever.

Before continuing, let’s make one thing clear: drinking seawater isn’t going to cure you. By now we should be wary, but on Internet you read all kinds of things. With respect to seawater, many of those commentaries are false, respond to specific aims, or don’t have any scientific basis. There are some self-help books that tout the supposed beneficial properties of seawater. For example in Cómo beber agua de mar (How to Drink Seawater) Mariano Arnal claims that it “serves as an internal regulator, cellular nutrient, a restorative, toothpaste and mouthwash, laxative, purgative, has disinfectant and healing properties and neutralises stomach acid.” Also that it helps you lose weight. None of this has been proven. “If you water a plant with it, you kill the plant,” explains the professor, communicator and blogger José Miguel Mulet, a doctor in biochemistry and molecular biology. “Because the concentration of sodium chloride is greater than that of salts in your body, if you drink it straight it will take away water from the gut epithelium.”

To strengthen his thesis, Arnal says he was a “voluntary castaway” in Fuerteventura and that he survived by drinking seawater. He was probably a companion then of Ángel Gracia, who in the aforementioned video claimed to have drunk a litre a day for several days: “Nobody gets dehydrated, seawater is diuretic and it’s beneficial for humanity,” he claims. But there are no known examples of castaways who survived by drinking seawater.

The origin of the myth of the curative properties of seawater can be found in the theories of René Quinton, a French physiologist and naturalist who believed that seawater was the natural setting for animal cells because, he claimed, the chemical composition of human blood plasma is very similar. Quinton even claimed that he had replaced the blood of a dog with seawater and that the dog survived. “It’s surreal, but the more outlandish a trend, the more success it has,” says Mulet.

Seawater is a solution of sodium chloride with a concentration on some 35 grams of salt per litre, a huge amount. Drinking or sipping a glass of seawater will increase your thirst because the kidney will need more water to eliminate the sodium. The kidney will suffer serious damage and the intake of the salt will increase related risks. And another problem: drinking seawater is risky because you don’t know what toxins, microbes and bacteria you’re putting into your body.

Apart from the miracle-workers, in recent years seawater has generated a wide range of products: from the water itself for cooking chips,  through beer or dietary supplements. These products are prepared with seawater that’s been treated according to some procedures established by the Spanish Agency of Food Safety and Nutrition, so consuming them is not a health risk. Whether they deliver what they promise is another story.

Laboratorios Quinton has taken advantage of the name of the physiologist to sell “innovative products made from micro-filtered seawater.” Among them is Totum Sport, a hypertonic drink packaged in vials, which tennis star Rafael Nadal drank during a game in the Australian Open in 2015. The product is advertised as a concentrated supply of minerals. Similar products are sold in herbalist shops and as food supplements. Mulet feels that the market has generated some needs that don’t really exist and that these complements are not necessary if someone follows a balanced diet.

Other companies like Mediterránea have opted for the widest diversification. It sells chips, bread, beers, nuts and dried fruit and even pizzas that have been made with seawater. Mediterránea has even marketed moistened paper wipes to wrap around fish to conserve them better. Founded just seven years ago, the company is now trying to break into the US market.

Finally, seawater is being sold in its most basic form: as seawater, although it has undergone some treatment. It is collected at a distance from the coast and at a depth that guarantee that it is clean. It is analysed and micro-filtered and its boron concentration is reduced from five milligrams per litre to one. In an interview with El Comidista, the founders of Mediterránea explained that the idea occurred to them while watching Spanish celebrity chef Ferrán Adrià taking water from Cala Montjoi to his El Bulli restaurant to cook and preserve fish and shellfish. And yes: the people who have tried this tend to agree that the flavour is special. At least a half-dozen companies are now selling this product, in containers of between two and 10 litres, and with prices that range from one to two euros per litre.

Seawater won’t work miracles. It doesn’t cure incurable diseases, and gulping it down can produce bad diarrheal, if not something worse. If you feel better when consuming a supplement based on seawater, then go ahead, but there is no evidence that you’ll be getting anything beyond what you already have with a normal diet. But yes: gourmet shops and some supermarkets are beginning to offer a wide range of products made from seawater, before which the only expert is you: when it comes to taste, you’re the boss.

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