July 22, 2024
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[Sea]weed ’em and Reap

Today’s nutritional celebrities, glowing in fame and acclaim, have been budding from humble roots—literally. Health superstars, like kale, quinoa and romanesco (just to name a few), look to the soil as their foundation for growth and support. However, there are other “superfoods” that flourish in oceans as far as the eye can “sea” (cheesy, I know, but I had to!). The complex marine algae, otherwise known as seaweed, has an astonishing nutritional profile that rivals its terrestrial counterparts.

There are four groups of algae: red, brown, green (the most common one) and blue-green algae (ever heard of spirulina?). Asian countries have been including seaweed directly into their cuisines for centuries (the first country that probably comes to your mind is Japan, with its love for making sushi among other seaweed-infused dishes), while western societies use it mostly to track hydrocolloids. These are substances that interact with water to form colloids, which are used as gelation and thickening agents in the food, pharmaceutical and biotechnological industries. Examples of seaweed-extracted hydrocolloids include agar, alginates and carrageenan. To give you an idea, alginates are used in anti-reflux medications, have antibacterial properties and are even being researched for their anti-mucus abilities, potentially aiding in cystic fibrosis patients to help clear mucus from their airways.

Western societies should learn from their eastern neighbors on incorporating this marine delicacy into their daily plates! Eating whole seaweed provides an abundance of vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids and fiber. It contains soluble fiber in particular; this kind of fiber helps food in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and water bond together, which facilitates stool bulking and decreases transit time in the colon. It also suppresses GI inflammation and helps reduce ulcers. The soluble fibers help develop a layer that protects and coats the digestive tract that protects against digestive enzymes and the stomach’s acidic environment. Lastly, it provides fodder for the gut microflora, promoting a healthy bacterial environment.

Seaweed also contains iodine, an underrated but highly important mineral that we need. One gram of seaweed provides our daily need for iodine (which is about 150 micrograms [mcg]). Iodine is crucial for proper thyroid function. This organ is responsible for releasing hormones that assist in energy production, growth, reproduction and cell repair. The thyroid is dependent on iodine and tyrosine (an amino acid) to do its job; without them, you may start to experience weight changes, fatigue and/or neck swelling (aka goiter).

Seaweed also contains an array of beneficial minerals, such as iron, copper and magnesium, but can also contain toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury (however, their amounts are within tolerable limits when consumed in moderation). This is why it’s important not to eat seaweed (or anything for that matter) in excess—too much may provide too many minerals, which can affect some of your body’s normal functions. Too much iodine, for example, can interact with certain medications like thyroid medication (e.g., methimazole), ACE-inhibitors (e.g., lisinopril) and potassium-sparing diuretics (e.g., spironolactone). According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), iodine’s tolerable upper intake level (aka the maximum amount you should be ingesting) is about 1,100 mcg. In other words, enjoy your seaweed, just not too much! The most popular species of seaweed is nori, which is usually dried in sheets to incorporate into sushi. Other varieties include kelp, spirulina, wakame, dulse and arame. You can eat it plain or sprinkle it in salads or on pasta—it may an acquired taste so be sure to taste-test it before including it wholeheartedly in a meal!

By Melissa Papir Kolb, 
MS, RD

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