Q: What is squid ink (as in “squid ink pasta”)? Is it good for you?
A: This black liquid pigment is produced by cephalopods, including squid, as a means of self-defense. It’s ejected from sacs near the gills to cloud the water, so the marine animal can hide or escape from a predator. Squid produce a bluish-black ink, while other cephalopods, like larger cuttlefish, produce other shades of dark ink.
The ink consists mainly of melanin (the pigment also in our skin) and contains some amino acids, minerals (like iron and copper), enzymes, polysaccharides, and catecholamines (including dopamine), among other constituents.
Animal and test-tube studies have found that the ink has antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and a multitude of other effects—but it’s a big leap to say it would have benefits in people. There have been no human studies testing any of this, though there’s interest in studying the ink for potential future medical applications.
In any case, the amounts consumed in food are likely too small (about ½ to 2 teaspoons per serving of squid ink pasta, for instance) to have significant effects. Don’t believe claims on the Internet that squid ink “acts as an antibiotic,” “slows down aging,” “lowers blood pressure,” “increases memory and concentration,” or has any other “amazing health benefits.”
That said, squid ink has its place in cuisine, both traditional (in Italy and Spain) and trendy (witness the uptick in black-ink-infused dishes and even cocktails in hip U.S. restaurants). Usually sourced from cuttlefish rather than squid, the ink is not only used to dye pasta and rice (as in black paella,risotto nero,and arroz negro) but also to add flavor to sauces and other dishes. Rich in the amino acid glutamic acid, a component of umami (savory taste), it has been described as both briny and earthy, and it also brings out the flavors of other ingredients, lessening the amount of salt needed.
Dried squid ink pasta is available at specialty markets and some large grocery stores, as well as online. You can also buy the ink itself, in jars or sachets, if you’re up for making your own squid ink pasta or other dramatic inky-black dishes or, perhaps, a perfect black martini. If you’re feeling extra ambitious, you can extract the ink yourself if you buy a fresh whole squid (or ask the fishmonger if any ink is available).
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Also see Are Fish Organs Safe to Eat?