DON’T UNDERESTIMATE the power of seaweed for your diet.
“Seaweed is a salty, slightly fishy tasting food that is found in oceans around the world,” says Wendy Lord, R,D., consultant for Sensible Digs. “It has been used in Japanese cuisine for centuries, and due to its high nutritional value, it was used as a tax [payment] and served in imperial courts and shrines as early as 3000 B.C.”
“Seaweed has been a staple in Asian diets for thousands of years, but it’s only become popular in North America in the past few decades. You can harvest it yourself if you’re near an ocean, but it’s also available in many supermarkets,” says Kim Yawitz, R.D., a gym owner in St. Louis, MO.
Yawitz notes that seaweed can be a bit tricky to identify on store shelves because most ready-to-consume products are labeled by species, not simply as “seaweed.” She says some of the most common varieties to look out for in North America are nori, wakame, kombu, kelp, sea lettuce, and dulse. “You can find these products in the form of sheets, strips, and noodles, often in the Asian foods aisle.”
Yawitz says that it’s also possible to consume seaweed without even realizing it. “Some types of seaweed—like carrageenan and agar—are used as thickeners for creamers, cottage cheese, jellies, meat products, and other packaged foods,” she says.
Here’s everything you need to know about seaweed, including the superfood’s health benefits and nutritional stats.
What is seaweed?
Seaweed, also known as macroalgae, refers to vegetables from the sea or another body of water. Yet not all seaweed is edible.
“Seaweed is an umbrella term for thousands of different species of algae that grow in oceans, lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water,” says Yawitz. “In addition to providing nutrients and shelter for marine animals, seaweed filters pollutants from the water,” she says, adding that while most saltwater seaweed is edible, freshwater algae shouldn’t be eaten due to a higher risk of toxicity.
Now, let’s dive into some of the better-known types of seaweed enjoyed by humans.
First, you’re likely familiar with dried nori sheets, which are used with rice to make sushi. “It is made from the dried red seaweed called pyropia. After harvesting, it is cleaned and minced before being laid out on flat trays to dry into sheets,” says Lord. “Besides sushi, nori adds the slightly sweet, salty ocean taste to noodle dishes, soups, and salads. It also makes a crispy snack.”
Other popular seaweed species? “Kombu, wakame, and hijiki are common types of seaweed used to make soups and broths and to add flavor to stews and casseroles. Kombu is a source of glutamine, an amino acid that gives this type of seaweed its rich umami flavor,” says Lord, noting seaweed can also be ground and sprinkled over food in place of salt. Try cooking rice with kombu to impart a hint of umami flavor.
“Arame is a good option to consider if you are looking for a milder, less fishy sea vegetable. The flavor is mild and slightly sweet, and the taste of the fish is more subdued,” she adds. “Arame has a firm texture, making it a versatile ingredient in soups, sauces, stews, and salads, but the dried arame must be reconstituted before being used.”
Is seaweed nutritious?
As Yawitz puts it, just like carrots have different vitamins and minerals than peppers, different types of seaweed vary a bit in terms of nutrients. “But in general, seaweed is a good source of iodine, manganese, folate, antioxidants, and fiber,” she says.
Seaweed also has some good-for-you sugars in it. Yes, you read that right. “You might not think of sugar as being particularly healthy, but seaweed also contains specific types of sugar that are thought to improve health,” says Yawitz. “For example, fucoxanthins and alginate are both types of sugar that appear to regulate blood sugar, while fucoidans are sugars that have been shown to reduce inflammation and boost the immune system.”
Recently, many dietitians have been extolling the virtues of seaweed.
“For starters, it is an excellent source of soluble and insoluble fiber, which are important in our diet to promote gut health and keep blood sugar levels and cholesterol in check. Soluble fiber, in particular, is essential for maintaining the ideal balance in the gut microbiome — the bacteria living in the digestive system,” says Lord. “Depending on the type of seaweed you are eating, the fiber content is between 36 percent to 60 percent of its dry weight, with the soluble fiber accounting for 55 percent to 70 percent of the total amount of fiber. Red algae, such as that used to make nori, has the highest soluble fiber content.”
It gets even better: “Some seaweed contains 10 to 100 times more vitamins and minerals than the equal amount of dry land vegetables or animal-derived foods,” says Lord, elaborating that the exact amount depends on the type of seaweed you are eating. Per recent research, the list of micronutrients found in seaweed includes:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin C
- B-group vitamins: B1, B2, B9, B12
What are the health benefits of seaweed?
Living forever. Well, perhaps that’s a stretch. But seaweed consumption might play a role in reaching centenarian status. “Seaweed is a diet staple in Okinawa, which has been home to some of the longest-living humans on earth. And while Okinawans certainly have other lifestyle habits that contribute to their longevity, some studies have linked seaweed with a longer lifespan,” says Yawitz. “In two large and recent studies, adults who ate the most seaweed had the lowest risk of dying from heart disease and stroke. Other, smaller studies suggest that seaweed oil could help reduce blood sugar levels, decreasing the risk for diabetes.”
Lord ticks off some more impressive potential health benefits of eating seaweed regularly: “Seaweed consumption has been associated with managing arthritis, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, eye conditions, and cardiovascular diseases. In brown algae, the active compound that is being studied with regard to health is fucoidan. It has not yet been approved for medical applications, but it can be bought in nutraceutical form. Research is promising and shows that it has antibacterial and antiviral properties. It also acts as an anti-inflammatory, anticoagulant, and antithrombotic agent. Plus, it can be used to prevent cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease.”
Lord also says that brown algae are commonly used in traditional Japanese medicine to treat hypertension, goiter, obesity, sore knees, and relieve constipation. “Many of the health benefits of seaweed can be attributed to the variety of phytonutrients found in it,” she says. “Along with the vitamins and minerals, the phytonutrients help to prevent oxidative damage in the body and prevent disease.”
The best ways to eat seaweed
Convinced you should be adding seaweed to your diet more frequently? Here’s how to get started in the kitchen…
“Seaweed is most commonly used in Asian cooking, but its popularity is growing worldwide,” suggests Lord. “Almost any savory dish can be lifted by adding seaweed. It adds a salty, earthy flavor to soups, stews, broths, and casseroles.”
She adds, “If you are new to using seaweed in your cooking, it might be a good idea to opt for one such as arame, which has a milder flavor until you get used to it and feel ready for the stronger umami flavor that comes with other forms of seaweed. Nori sheets are most commonly used to make sushi, but they can be added to any number of dishes. You can snack on it as it is in the form of seaweed crisps, or cut it and add it to salads or cooked vegetable dishes. You can even grind it and use it to add flavor to your food instead of salt.”
Yawitz suggested adding a cup of miso soup to meal time—which typically has seaweed stirred into it—or to start your meal with a seaweed salad to boost your intake of sea greens. “You can also add seaweed to stir-fries, soups, steamed rice, or even smoothies,” she says. “Finally, seaweed snacks are a great alternative to chips and other salty snacks. You can buy them in stores or make them using a food dehydrator.”
Perri is a New York City-born-and-based writer; she holds a bachelor’s in psychology from Columbia University and is also a culinary school graduate of the plant-based Natural Gourmet Institute, which is now the Natural Gourmet Center at Institute Of Culinary Education. Her work has appeared in the New York Post, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, Oprah Daily, Insider.com, Architectural Digest, Southern Living, and more. She’s probably seen Dave Matthews Band in your hometown, and she’ll never turn down a bloody mary. Learn more at VeganWhenSober.com.
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