When it comes to eating well, I encourage everyone to fill their plates with plants. Do that at every meal and you give your microbiome – the billions of bacteria that live mostly in your gut – exactly what’s needed to make the rest of your body thrive. Glorious greens like spinach, arugula, bok choy, kale and Swiss chard are the classic go-to’s and I’m hoping they’re already taking up plenty of space on your plate. But when it comes to veggies, there’s always room for more, particularly the non-starchy kind. So, if you’re looking to expand your repertoire, it may be time to get acquainted with sea vegetables, or edible seaweeds, like nori, kelp, blue-green algae, kombu, dulse and wakame.
Super-nutritious but often overlooked stateside, sea veggies are a fantastic addition to any meal – and tasty ones at that. Not sure what they’re all about or what to do with them? Here’s a topline on these ocean-based nutritional powerhouses, and how to work more of them into your diet.
Seaweed feeds everything up and down the food chain.
The phrase ‘weed’ tends to call to mind those invasive, nuisance plants that grow all-too quickly in our gardens, running amok wherever they touch down and wrecking the plots they invade. But with edible seaweed, they’re not actually weeds at all – they’re really very primitive organisms belonging to the algae family, often living attached or anchored to rock or other hard, soil-like surfaces in coastal waters. Be they brown, red or green, seaweed provides shelter and food for many sea creatures, marine mammals and invertebrates, from microscopic to massive. For birds and humans, not only does seaweed deliver nutrition, but through photosynthesis, it also produces a significant amount of the oxygen we breathe, making the stuff pretty indispensable for sustaining life on our planet.
Seaweed is a health-boosting multi-tasker.
When it comes to seaweed’s benefits, there’s a lot to like. In addition to delivering vitamins and minerals (see guide below), the naturally-occurring iodine found in seaweed – particularly the abundant amounts found in kombu, wakame and nori – can help with thyroid regulation. Seaweed also gives your gut something to chew on too, namely, prebiotic fiber, the stuff your gut bacteria thrives on, which in turn supports immunity, healthy digestion and optimal gut function. The fiber found in kelp may also help promote feelings of satiety by slowing stomach emptying and suppressing fat absorption, making it potentially helpful for weight control. Promising research on mice indicates that seaweed may have positive long-term effects on blood sugar control. In addition, even modest-sized servings of sea veggies will deliver, in addition to iodine and fiber, beneficial amounts of protein and plenty of protective antioxidants to support heart health and tame inflammation. These ocean-based veggies are a true super food.
Sea veggies pack a tasty, nutritious punch.
For thousands of years, seaweed has been a flavorful ingredient in Japanese and Chinese cooking, often associated with health and longevity. In the U.S., however, much of our seaweed-eating boils down to the occasional run-in with those darkly-hued, crispy sheets that wrap and hold our sushi ingredients together. But anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial seaweed is so much more than just an edible wrapper! Sea veggies check quite a few nutritional boxes – they’re extremely low in calories (think single digits per serving) and rich in vitamins, minerals plus fiber, chlorophyll, trace minerals and the ‘baked in’ salty flavor that comes from their aquatic origins. Here’s a snapshot of what you’ll find inside three common types of edible seaweed and where you’re most likely to find them:
Nori: A red algae with the highest nutrition profile, nori delivers a healthy dose of vitamin A, vitamin C, B-12; EPA omega-3 fatty acids; the minerals iodine, manganese, phosphorous, and iron, as well as the amino acids alanine, glutamic acid and glycine. Nori is most often used as a wrap for sushi and is also a garnish or flavoring in noodle preparations and soups.
Kelp: This brown algae seaweed — eaten raw, cooked or in powdered form — is a good source of nutrients including fiber, vitamins C and K1, pantothenic acid, zinc and copper, riboflavin, folate, calcium, iron, iodine, magnesium and manganese. Interestingly, kelp also turns up as a key thickening agent in salad dressings, frozen foods and a number of other products.
Kombu: Eaten fresh, dried or pickled, kombu (also a brown algae) enhances flavor, can be used as a salad topper, a base for soup stocks, as well as a tenderizer for beans and proteins. It can also be enjoyed in the fermented tea known as kombucha. Kombu contains iodine, potassium, magnesium, iron, calcium, iron, iodine, essential fatty acids, polyphenols and polysaccharides, also algin (which can have a mildly laxative effect).
Seaweed is better for some people than others.
As tasty and nutritious as sea veggies may be though, keep in mind that any type of seaweed – be it red, green, purple or brown – is best enjoyed in measured doses. As seaweed is high in naturally-occurring sodium, you may need to keep an eye on your intake – a little goes a long way and most people don’t need to eat it every day. For some folks over-doing it on seaweed can cause problems, for example: those who are pregnant; are on blood thinners; have thyroid issues or are taking thyroid meds – all should check-in with their doctor first to determine whether or not seaweed is appropriate for their particular situation. Also you’re at increased risk for certain cancers, or have fish and/or shellfish allergies, discussing whether or not to consume seaweed with a healthcare is also an essential conversation you’ll need to have before going all in.
Put your seaweed to work.
Next order of business: what to do with those tasty seaweed morsels. One thing that I love about seaweed is that it’s extremely versatile stuff, a tasty alternative to the same old sea or Himalayan salt, and great to keep on hand to jazz up just about any meal. Here’s how I like to use it:
- As a flavor enhancer for scrambled eggs, omelets and crustless quiches
- Scooped into smoothies (spirulina works well for this)
- Crumbled into stir-fry dishes, stews, soups and salads
- As a spaghetti like noodle
- Mixed into home-made salad dressings
- As a to-go wrapper for morning eggs, sauteed veggies or hummus
- As a healthy alternative to bread or tortillas
- As a crunchy, baked snack, aka ‘seaweed chips.’
Bottom line: seaweed is a versatile, wonderful gift from the sea that in time, may just become your new favorite pantry staple.