Why jellyfish could be on the menu
As numbers of the gelatinous creatures rise, a team of Italian scientists is working on an edible solution
Over the past decade, numbers of jellyfish have been slowly multiplying in oceans around the world. Vast blooms – some up to 26km2 wide – have been annoying swimmers, endangering fish farms and even forcing power-plant filtration systems to shut down. It sounds like the plot of a horror movie – but the EU-funded GoJelly project is exploring ways to turn this negative into a positive. “From pollution to solution” is their motto, and one of the most unusual potential solutions is to turn jellyfish into a food source for humans.
“We now have scientific proof of an increase of jellyfish proliferation over the last 10 years, especially in coastal zones. It’s a big issue for the humans who live there,” says Antonella Leone, a scientist at the Italian National Research Council in Rome and a member of the GoJelly project. “At this stage we’re working out if and how the biomass might be edible for humans,” says Leone, whose team is assessing flavour profiles, reactions of its flesh to heat and salt, and potential for poisoning. “The most important factor will be making sure they don’t accumulate bacteria, heavy metals or pollution that could make them unsafe to eat,” she says.
GoJelly doesn’t just want to put jellyfish on your plate – the €6m project is also researching how the marine medusozoa can be turned into other potential ways jellyfish could benefit humans. Different teams from across Europe are exploring how jellyfish can be used as fish feed, fertiliser and a filtration system for micro-plastics. It’s Leone’s Italian team which arguably has the hardest challenge, though: researching how to valuate and validate the use of jellyfish as human food.
The team’s not venturing into completely uncharted territory; this isn’t the first time jellyfish have been brought to the table. In China and South East Asia, Rhopilema esculenta (flame jellyfish) is a delicacy, generally preserved in alum and salt and served as a salad. Western countries, meanwhile, are home to a host of untested species. Leone is experimenting with Mediterranean Cotylorhiza tuberculate (known as the “fried-egg jellyfish” for its looks rather than its edibility), Rhizostoma pulmo and Aurelia coerulea – as well as Cyanea capillata, “the lion’s mane”, from the North Sea.
“We think eating these species could be acceptable in the future for Western people if we’re able to demonstrate they’re safe,” says Leone. She predicts that, by 2020, when the project ends, people could find themselves sampling fried, battered or boiled jellies for dinner. “Even jellyfish sushi.”
GoJelly is testing different recipes to suit Western palates. “The traditional process in Asia involves a lot of alum and salt but we wanted to make food Mediterranean style to be more acceptable to western people,” Leone explains.
As someone who’s already munched her way through these dubious delicacies, Leone describes them as oyster-like in texture. “They’re a little bit different from the food we normally choose,” she says carefully. “But if people can open their minds to taste them, they can find very interesting flavours.”