Seaweed: the Underwater Kale
You’re thinking: sushi? Close.
Seaweed is now taking off in the health food world, and rightfully so. "Seaweed" is the common name for countless species of marine plants and algae that grow in the ocean as well as in rivers, lakes, and other water bodies. There are thousands of varieties, but only a few dozen are typically consumed, most notably wakame and kombu - two brown varieties, and nori and dulse - two red varieties.
It’s a regular part of the diet in Scandinavia (soups and salads), Britain, China, Japan, and other Asian countries (soup, with vinegar, sushi, etc.). In the US, it’s still not really a ‘staple’, but it’s becoming a more commonly used and accepted ingredient, making its way into everything from noodles, chips, smoothies, and upscale restaurant menus.
Is Seaweed Good for me?
Yes, kind of. It’s definitely nutrient dense. Red seaweed varieties like nori have up to 50g of protein per 3.5 ounces. Seaweed is also a rich source of vitamins like K, C, D, E, and B, as well as K (like Kale and other leafy greens). It’s also a great source of minerals like calcium, copper, iron. and soluble fiber (what makes you feel satiated). My answer: yes, it’s a superfood, and you should consume more of it! That being said, there are three main caveats to keep in mind:
Seaweeds easily absorb and retain whatever is in the environment, just like fish. So, if it grows in contaminated water with things like mercury or heavy metals roaming about, it’s likely the seaweed will contain those substances as well. The one to definitely avoid is hijiki - commonly used in Japanese food and shown as having the highest arsenic levels among seaweed. That being said, there are many cleaning processes and tests done by reputable American companies producing seaweed products.
Volume: while foods like spirulina are touted as being ridiculously good for you, many of those benefits only come in volumes that we simply don’t consume. For example, you need a whole Tbsp of pure spirulina the high copper, iron, and riboflavin benefits. In a homemade smoothie? Not that hard. In a product at a store or a store-bought smoothie? Probs not. Stay wary of major health claims as the driving reason for consuming seaweed, because in small volumes, you’re likely not getting your vitamin B for the day. Or, know what you’re getting.
Final Product: seaweed might be good for you, but the forms we consume it in aren’t always pure. A seaweed salad at a Japanese restaurant has been soaked in oils and sugars and has sat for a while. Seaweed in crackers and snacks is processed and combined with ingredients that might not be great for you. Be discerning.
The best way to consume seaweed is in your home kitchen, cooking from scratch. Well + Good has a fantastic collection of beginner-friendly recipes to inspire more seaweed into your food. It’s easy to find more common varietals in regular grocery stores, but find your local asian store for some harder to find types, or if you don’t have any luck at your neighborhood grocer. Our favorite is making a big raw green salad with a few types of seaweed in it, and tossing it all in a ginger miso dressing.
That being said, here are some of the most interesting newish seaweed products on the market: