Suffering Seaweed, Batman! It’s A Real Super Food!

February 17, 2016

You may think of them as the annoying fronds that wrap around your ankles at the seaside, but sea vegetables are the ultimate super food. At a time when it seems there’s a new super ingredient every day, sea vegetables are the real deal.

If the only seaweed you’ve ever eaten is the nori wrapped around a sushi roll, have I got news for you. These ancient plants come in an array of varieties all with different balances of nutrients we need to be well and vital.

Staples of the notoriously longevity-producing Japanese diet, sea vegetables are versatile and delicious, which makes you fall in love with Mother Nature just a bit more as she provides us yummy ways to be healthy.

I’m not really into “laundry lists” of things, but sea vegetables provide so many benefits, I thought you’d like to see them all in one spot.

Sea vegetables can help:

Slow the aging process

Prevent many chronic diseases

Lower cholesterol levels

Solve mineral deficiencies

Detoxify your body from heavy metals, environmental pollutants and carcinogens

Control the growth of pathogenic viruses, candida, and pathogenic bacteria

Balance thyroid function

Fight constipation

Increase bone density

Stimulate weight loss

Prevent cancer

Prevent blood clots

It’s an impressive list, don’t you agree?

Sea vegetables are densely nutritious and while you may need to acquire a taste for them, incorporating into your diet is key to health and wellness. Since they are so deeply nutrient-dense, we only need a wee bit of them to reap the benefits in our lives. In macrobiotics, we usually recommend people consume about 5% of their daily diet in the form of veggies from the sea.

Classified as marine algae, sea vegetables are chlorophyll-containing plants without true stems, roots, or leaves that live in the ocean, often attached to rocks or other surfaces. Successful and resilient species, they’ve been around for more than 2 billion years. Yes, 2 billion! Most sea vegetables rely on sunlight as an energy source from which to produce food.

Although all have chlorophyll, many also contain other pigments in order to better absorb various wavelengths of light and capture more of the sun’s energy, so there are three main colors of sea plants: red, green, and brown.

Green seaweeds like wakame, mainly contain chlorophyll.

Red seaweeds like dulse, laver, nori and agar contain red/purple pigments, depending on the specific kinds of carotene pigments present, although they turn dark green after cooking. 

Brown seaweeds like kelp, kombu, arame and hiziki, depend on brown pigments from other carotenoid pigments, fucoxanthin in particular. Although chlorophyll is also a component of brown seaweeds, its green color is masked by the brown.

With so many varieties to choose from, I thought I would give you the basic scoop on sea plants so you can decide how you want to include them in your diet.

Arame  is a mild sweet-ish brown plant from the kelp family and is a great variety to begin with if you’re new to eating sea veggies. Most often found in finely shredded strands , arame has a very fine, crispy texture. I soak a small handful in water just until soft. From there, I can marinate it in lemon juice and sesame oil before adding it to a favorite salad. Or I stir fry some fresh veggies like carrots, leeks and red bell peppers and toss with the marinated arame for a yummy side dish.

Nori is most familiar to us as the wrapper around rice and veggies commonly known as sushi or nori rolls. These tender thin sheets of sea plant work great as wraps and are completely delish if you lightly toast them. Simply drag the sheets through a low flame until they turn from a dark purple color to dark green. (You can purchase toasted nori as well.) In Japanese cuisine, nori is often finely shredded to serve as a mineral-rich garnish for a variety of dishes or cut into wide strips and then  used to pick up food so that when eaten together with, say, rice or tofu, you have the added flavor and minerals of nori in each and every bite.

Kombu  is a popular sea plant used in a number of vegetable dishes, but most notably cooked with beans and hearty grains as a means to add minerals and to help soften the fiber in these foods that can make them challenging to digest. Kombu is also a key ingredient in “dashi,” a mineral-rich broth that is the basis for many Japanese style dishes like noddle and broth. Simply add veggies, tofu or other ingredients to create a most satisfying soup. Kombu is also a rich source of keratin and can contribute to shiny hair and strong nails.

Wakame is a close relative to kombu, but is more delicate in texture and flavor. Most often used in miso soup or salads, this tender sea plant has been linked to help our bodies burn fat, according to research from Japan. Said to contain compounds that inhibit the signs of aging, wakame is said to be a key ingredient  in the diet of Okinawans, some of the longest-lived people on earth.

Hiziki is the greatest natural beauty product ever. Very black sea plant strands comprise nutritional powerhouse.  Rich in calcium (1350 mg per ½ cup), hiziki has been linked to strong bone density. Also rich in keratin and other minerals essential to great skin and hair, a mere half-cup serving of hiziki a couple of times a month will leave your skin glowing and turn your hair into your crowning glory. Hiziki needs to be rinsed and soaked until tender. Then simply drain and cook with water, soy sauce and white wine for 30-40 minutes (or until the water has been absorbed). Toss in some lemon juice and fresh sliced scallions for a strongly flavored and oh, so yummy side dish.

Dulse is a delicate North Atlantic sea plant that is so tender, it can be eaten right out of the package. A rich source of potassium this delicate plant is a great way for athletes to stay big and strong.  Packed with protein and iron, this sea plant can be eaten as a snack but my favorite way to eat dulse it to make a DLT. I simply dry roast dulse in a skillet until crisp. Then I pile it, along with lettuce, tomatoes and vegan mayo on whole grain bread for a most satisfying sandwich.

Agar is our secret ingredient to making vegan “jello” as it serves the same purpose. Colorless and flavorless, this high fiber powerhouse has mild laxative properties and keeps things moving, if you get my drift. Used in sweet or savory dishes, I love to cook agar flakes with apple juice until they dissolve and then pour this hot liquid over fresh fruit. Allow to stand until firmly set and you have created the most delicious and refreshing dessert.

Kelp is similar to kombu and grows in deep nutrient-rich ocean water. Packed with vitamins, minerals and iodine, kelp is thought to be especially useful for prostate, pancreas and digestive health. If you have a thyroid disorder like hypo-thyroid, hashimoto’s and hyperthyroid kelp is often recommended to support thyroid function. Kelp can be used interchangeably with kombu in cooking.

Alaria is often called “American wakame,” because this brown algae is common along the entire Pacific coast of North America. Similar in flavor and texture, alaria is used in the same way as wakame with many of the same benefits to our health and wellness.

Nature’s perfect food…almost.

Sea vegetables can be quite high in sodium. They grow in seawater. Certainly, we can remove excess salt by rinsing and soaking them (and discarding the soaking water). When cooking with them, it’s important to remember to season lightly so your end dish isn’t too strongly flavored. I learned a little tip years ago that has served me well in cooking sea veggies. I season them lightly in the beginning of cooking and don’t season at the end, giving the flavors plenty of time to develop.

Sea vegetables have also created a bit of controversy over the occurrence of heavy metals, like lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium being present in them. Given that these heavy metals occur naturally worldwide because they may be leached from bedrock, sea vegetables often contain trace amounts. While not healthy for us at high levels, the levels at which these metals occur in sea veggies along with the fact that we eat such small quantities of them make this a non-issue in my view. However some of you have expressed concern over the years so I thought I would address it.

Most sea vegetable producers are very picky about where and how their seaweed is harvested, dried, and stored. Most of them test their product at regularly for heavy metals, as well as herbicides, pesticides, and microbial contaminants, so you have little to worry about.

Not sure how and where to find sea veggies? No worries. I don’t expect you to head to the seaside to harvest them by hand (although it is fun when you know what you’re doing…). You can find a variety of sea veggies in most natural foods stores and in Asian markets. You can also find them online from wonderful companies like Maine Coast Sea Vegetables.

Now that’s a super food!