Sea Cucumber - Animal, Mineral or Vegetable?
What is a Sea Cucumber?
Its name would suggest it is a plant and it certainly is packed with lots of minerals, but like most animals this invertebrate creature has a high protein content making a valuable food source. In addition to this, Sea Cucumbers have a number of unusual characteristics not the least of which is their unique self-defence technique.
Sea Cucumbers are innocuous creatures that inhabit the seas worldwide. They live on the sandy seafloor and around coral reefs. There are more than one thousand species of sea cucumbers, ranging in size from a few centimetres (one inch) to two metres (several feet). As their name would suggest they have a soft body the shape and texture of a cucumber. Sea Cucumbers have no brain, but have developed a surprising defense mechanism called evisceration: they can expel most of their internal organs (which regrow) to ward off and confuse predators!
In Asian cultures Sea Cucumber extract has been used as a traditional health remedy. It contains Chondroitin Sulphate which is an important building block for cartilage and tendons. More recently, studies have found that it has an anti-inflammatory, but the most exciting discovery is that Sea Cucumber is a major and abundant source of Triterpenoids. These naturally occurring organic compounds are most often found in plants such as pine trees, and are known to have anti-tumour properties. In fact, Triterpenoids are the subject of many studies investigating their potential in treatment of chronic diseases including some cancers.
Marine sources of Triterpenoids include marine sponges, marine algae and Sea cucumbers. In a journal article published in Molecules (July 2013), entitled ‘Triterpenoids of Marine Origin as Anti-Cancer Agents’ the authors state that: “…triterpenoids are known to exhibit cytotoxicity against a variety of tumor cells…” Sea Cucumber in particular contains at least four different Triterpenoids which exhibit properties against breast cancer, pancreatic cancer and leukaemia.
Being an invertebrate marine animal it is largely composed of protein, it is low in fat and contains many vitamins and minerals. Clearly, this Asian delicacy has more to offer than just a good meal.
This remarkable marine organism has elements of all three – animal, mineral and vegetable.