Having read about their health benefits for years, I recently decided to make a foray into the world of sea vegetables. Technically considered algae, sea vegetables are most commonly recognized by the names kelp, seaweed, kombu, wakame and nori, though there are dozens of varieties.
I hate the word superfood but sea vegetables provide each of the 50+ minerals required by the body for optimum functioning – and in a form that makes them easily absorbed. This includes sodium, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron and a host of trace nutrients that you’re likely deficient in. Interestingly, the mineral content of the blood and the mineral content of the sea are nearly identical.
Sea vegetables also provide vitamins A, C, E, B1, B2, B6 and K as well as carotene, chlorophyll, enzymes and fiber. They are also the only non-animal source of vitamin B12, which is critical to the process of converting food into energy and for the formation of DNA.
Many people regard sea vegetables as the most nutrient dense food in existence and some of the healthiest and longest-living populations on Earth consider them a dietary staple. Certain varieties of sea vegetables are known for their ability to lower cholesterol and those from the brown algae family help remove metallic and radioactive compounds from the body. They also support thyroid health and prevent goiter. Sea veggies have been studied for their antibacterial properties, including those shown to be effective against penicillin resistant bacteria and those shown to work better than certain prescription drugs. Sea vegetables have been used to treat cancer for hundreds of years in Japan and China and research is accumulating to support their anti-tumor properties, particularly with regard to breast cancer. A seaweed extract is even being studied as a possible treatment for cystic fibrosis.
That’s all the convincing I needed, though I was further motivated by my self-confirmed need for additional iodine in my diet. Iodine is critical for proper thyroid function. Most brands of table salt have been iodized and the mineral therefore shows up in processed foods, an accidental benefit of the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.). But table salt is highly refined and has anti-caking agents added to it so I don’t buy the stuff. Instead, I opt for either Himalayan pink or Celtic sea salt. Sea salt is more natural, provides better flavor and offers some trace minerals, however it contains little to no iodine.
As for preparation of sea vegetables, follow the directions on the package. Most sea vegetables require soaking for up to 10 minutes before use but nori and kelp flakes can be used without soaking. Both are great as a salt alternative or for adding some umami to your cooking. I started out by experimenting with kombu because it’s considered milder (wakame is another good choice for beginners). Since I’m a daily salad eater, I decided this was the most realistic way for me to introduce sea vegetables to my diet. I toasted pieces of kombu in a dry skillet and crunched them over my salad. Strips can also be added to broths, soup, sauce or stew recipes. Next, I’ll attempt some roasted nori sheets for use as a “wrapper,” perhaps coated with some olive oil and sea salt.
TIP #1: if toxicity risk is a concern for you, buy only certified organic sea vegetables. The brand Maine Coast Sea Vegetables regularly tests their products for contaminants. Eden is another reputable company. Aside from hijiki – which should be avoided due to arsenic concerns – the research has shown that health risks from heavy metals in seaweed are incredibly low.
TIP #2: it is possible to consume too much iodine. Sea vegetables are meant to be a flavor enhancer or garnish, not a main dish.