Seaweed, algae, sea vegetables – no matter what you call them, these plants from the sea have been a delicious, nutritious part of our diet for centuries. Grown in the mineral-dense environment of the sea, they’re packed with nutrients including iodine, iron, zinc, magnesium, manganese, potassium, calcium, and phytochemicals.
There are hundreds of varieties of sea vegetables, each with a unique nutritional composition – and all are nutrition powerhouses with few calories.
Seaweed is an especially rich source of iodine, which is required for proper thyroid function. Because iodine levels in vegetables and the soil in which they’re grown varies greatly, seaweed can be an important source of this crucial nutrient. Just two tablespoons can contain an entire day’s worth of iodine.
Most sea vegetables have significant amounts of the coagulant vitamin K and non-heme (plant-based) iron, which is required for energy transport in the blood. (Note: if you’re taking a blood thinner, you need to be careful about fluctuations in vitamin K intake.)
These vegetables from the sea also contain measurable amounts of carotenoids and flavonoids often associated with “superfoods” such as blueberries, green tea and chocolate. Consumption of these phytonutrients may reduce the risk for heart disease and some cancers.
Certain varieties of seaweed – especially those that are brown, like kombu – contain the unique compound fucoidan, a starchlike molecule with strong antioxidant properties.
IN THE KITCHEN
Sea vegetables are popular as a dietary supplement – in pill or powder form – but there’s no reason to take a pill when you can easily eat the whole-food version, which is always better for you. A simple start is to add them to soup or sprinkle the flakes on Asian dishes.
There are many kinds of seaweed – typically available in dried form – with an enormous variety of tastes and textures. Look for sea vegetables in supermarkets, Asian markets and online.
While there are hundreds of varieties of seaweed, you might want to start with those most readily available, such as:
1. Wakame: This kelp looks like a stringy noodle and has a chewy texture. Common in miso soup. Serve tossed with sesame oil over lettuce.
2. Kombu: This type of kelp is high in glutamic acid, which is responsible for umami, the savory taste associated with Asian foods. Common in soup broth or with sashimi in Japanese cuisine. Add when cooking beans to reduce gas-producing properties.
3. Nori: A dark purple algae that turns green when toasted. Well-known for its use in wrapping sushi, it’s produced in square, dry, toasted sheets and makes a great crispy snack.
4. Dulse: Most often found as shredded, dried flakes, this red algae is especially high in calcium and is a staple high-fiber food of Northern Europe. Can be baked and eaten like chips or added to foods like soup and homemade bread.