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Seaweed: the Super Food
Seaweed: the Super Food
Sea vegetables are not the unfamiliar ingredients they once were. Sushi rolls can now be found in supermarket coolers, and seaweed salads grace many a mainstream restaurant menu. But even if you haven't been sampling Asian food lately, you may be surprised at how much seaweed you've already consumed in your lifetime.
While most of us probably don't think of seaweed as a dessert food, we've actually been eating it as an ingredient in desserts for years. That's because certain components of sea vegetables—known as algin, agar or carrageenan—serve as ideal food stabilizers, giving pudding its thick, creamy texture and ice cream that smooth consistency. But sea vegetables are far more than just thickeners; they are nutrient-rich plants that can help rid the body of toxins, and they may even help us ward off a number of health conditions.
The science of seaweed
Back in 1968, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published research suggesting that certain compounds in seaweed have the ability to bind potentially toxic elements such as mercury, cadmium and strontium, preventing absorption and pulling them out of the body. Fast forward several decades, and the evidence of sea vegetables’ benefits continues to grow.
For example, a 2008 study in Nutrition Research and Practice showed seaweed intake can steady blood sugar and lower blood lipids, while a 2011 trial published in Biologics demonstrated seaweed’s ability to boost the immune system. What’s more, a 2011 issue of the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry reviewed nearly 100 previous studies of seaweed and revealed that proteins in seaweed known as bioactive peptides work just like blood pressure medications. And if that’s not enough to get you eating these ocean veggies, a 2010 study at Newcastle University found that a natural fiber in sea kelp exerts an inhibitory effect on a digestive enzyme called lipase, which can reduce the rate of one’s fat absorption by 75 percent.
Seaweeds are considered supernutrients because they provide trace elements that may be lacking from the typical Western diet, which is often nutrient-depleted in part due to our overworked cropland. Many of us also have a tendency to indulge in less-than-ideal dietary habits, favoring fatty or sugary foods over fruits and vegetables.
"Seaweeds are the most mineralized of any foods you can eat," says Ryan Drum, PhD, a biomedical herbalist who has been harvesting, eating and studying seaweed since the 1960s. According to Drum, eating a mere ounce of seaweed a week can provide crucial minerals and a healthy dose of vitamins C, E and B complex, plus beta-carotene and a reliable source of dietary iodine. "Maintaining adequate iodine levels in the body is necessary to maintain a healthy thyroid and to protect against radioactive iodine exposure—and may serve as a cancer preventive," says Drum. And although iodine deficiency is rare in the United States, seaweed is a foolproof source of iodine for people who prefer sea salt to iodized table salt.
You don’t even have to be a sushi fan to reap the benefits of seaweed. These days it’s pretty easy to find an array of ocean flora at grocery stores that feature Asian products. Common varieties include wakame, nori, kelp, kombu, dulse and arame.
Start cooking with seaweed
To add more seaweed to your diet, start by thinking of it as an herb rather than some strange weed. Simply sprinkling a bit of powdered kelp on a bowl of popcorn or salad, or tossing a pinch of dulse into a soup stock will provide several nutrients and some health protection. Not sure which greens to use where? Here’s a guide to the benefits and uses of some of the most popular ones.
Arame, the thin, dark strands that often lend sweetness to a seaweed salad, is full of potassium. Soak it for a few minutes, and then toss it into salads or add it to stir-fry vegetables.
Dulse is a potassium powerhouse. It is wonderful as a dried snack; in powdered form it can be sprinkled on salads and grains. You can even try baking dulse into bread or layering it on sandwiches.
Kelp delivers a dose of folate, as well as iodine. Try sprinkling the powdered form on grains, popcorn or vegetables. Kelp can also be added to smoothies or homemade energy bars for a sneaky serving of minerals.
Nori is probably the most popular seaweed for eating. Rich in protein, fiber and vitamin C, nori has a sweet, meaty flavor. Add it to soups, re-wet it for salads or use the sheets as a wrap for sushi and other foods.
Wakame and Kombu are two of the large brown “kelps.” Wakame is known for its calcium and magnesium content, and kombu is packed with iodine. While both can be eaten dried, they’re often best soaked and sauced, cooked with grains and legumes, or tossed into soups.
Linda is a nutritional anthropologist and freelance writer in Portland, Ore. Her work has been featured in Body & Soul, Fitness, Glamour, Natural Health, Yoga Journal and many other national magazines. She is also the author of the User's Guide to Natural Remedies for Depression (Basic Health Publications, 2003).
July 26th, 2012