Although most people realize the merits of increasing our intake of vegetables, few consider adding sea vegetables (also known as seaweed!) to their diet – unless they come wrapped around a piece of sushi.
Yet in Japanese cuisine – where seaweed forms an important component of the diet – more than 20 different species of seaweed are regularly used.
These fascinating plants don’t just add depth of flavor to Asian fare; they’re chock full of nutrients and exert a positive influence on health in a number of ways.
Here are just a few reasons to experiment with sea vegetables – including kelp, wakame and nori – in your meals.
1. A Flavor Punch
Umami is a Japanese word which literally means ‘delicious flavor’ – although we might describe it as ‘savory’ or even ‘meaty’. Only recently recognized by Western scientists as the ‘fifth taste’ (after salty, sweet, sour and bitter), umami explains our love of caramelized flavors, mature cheeses, beer, tomato ketchup and even MSG-laden takeout foods.
Umami taste is imparted naturally in certain foods by free amino acids, of which glutamate is the most plentiful. Dried seaweed is one of the highest sources of free glutamates, which is why it’s used so frequently in Japanese cuisine, as it helps impart a flavor punch to anything it’s cooked with.
Try umami-rich seaweed in soups, salads, vegetable stews and stir-fries for added flavor and nutrition – you’re guaranteed to come back for more!
2. Support Thyroid Function
Although sea vegetables are often cited as an incredible source of nutrients (including several vitamins, along with calcium, magnesium, manganese and more), the truth is the two-tablespoon serving size (10 grams) is too small to dish up any of these in meaningful quantities.
However, the same can’t be said for the essential mineral iodine – which is vital for a well-functioning thyroid. With the help of iodine, the thyroid produces hormones that are responsible for metabolism and body heat regulation, among other important functions.
Seaweed is loaded with iodine! A mere gram of brown seaweed (like kelp or wakame) contains between five and 50 times the recommended daily intake.
3. Control Appetite
According to the European Food Information Council, seaweeds are rich in soluble fibers which are not readily digested in the gut.
This, coupled with the fact that it is a low calorie food, means that seaweed is likely to help boost feelings of satiety, keeping you feel fuller for longer. Just as other vegetables do, this may help achieve or maintain a healthy weight.
4. Heavy Metal Detoxer
Seaweed can actually help rid the body of toxins, according to Canadian researchers at McGill University in Montreal. They studied a polysaccharide called sodium alginate which is present in generous quantities in brown algae like kelp and kombu. This compound allows the seaweed to bind to radioactive strontium and eliminate it from the body!
Although you might not ever be exposed to strontium, you most likely are surrounded by lead and cadmium, which come from cigarette smoke and transport fumes. Brown seaweed can also bind to, and remove, these heavy metals from the body.
However, if it can bind to these heavy metals in the body it can do so in the seawater too, so make sure you purchase a reputable brand and choose organic where possible. Those in the US should know that the FDA regulates commercial seaweed to a high standard so it should be safe to eat, although they do not regulate seaweed supplements, which should be chosen with care.
5. Boost Digestive Health
A healthy gut is key to overall health – something which seaweed can contribute significantly to.
Research into a substance in brown seaweed, by scientists at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, found that it can strengthen the mucus which protects the gut wall.
What’s more, the enzymes in kombu seaweed help pre-digest pulses when added to the cooking water of beans, soups and stews.
6. Promote a Healthy Heart
Research has shown that the humble sea vegetable is a rich source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, which can help fight the free radicals and inflammation that leads to cardiovascular disease, as well as mental disorders, obesity and autoimmune conditions.
Other research from Kyoto University discovered that brown seaweed may help to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of stroke in animals predisposed to such problems.
7. Balance Hormones
Seaweed is high in lignans, plant substances that help to block the chemical estrogens in the body, which predispose women to breast cancer.
In fact, a Harvard University research paper claims kelp consumption may be a factor in Japan’s lower rates of breast cancer.
Imbalanced female sex hormones can also lead to PMS, menopausal symptoms, acne, weight gain, insomnia, migraines, anxiety and much more. Adding seaweed to your diet – along with employing other methods of balancing hormones – may make these issues disappear!
How Much Seaweed Should I Eat?
Sea vegetables are incredibly healthy – although sometimes they can be too rich in certain minerals!
For example, approximately 10 grams of dulse has 34 times the amount of potassium in the same size serving of banana. This dose may cause heart palpitations among those with kidney problems, although generally healthy people should have no trouble.
Similarly, although iodine is vital for a healthy thyroid, too much can pose problems. Nori is low in iodine and is fine to consume; wakame contains moderate amounts so excessive consumption (over 10-20 grams daily) should be avoided; while kombu is a significant source of iodine so should be eaten raw sparingly. However, boiling kombu (as most recipes advise) dispels most of the iodine, removing the risk of iodine toxicity.
Finally, the high sodium content should be considered by those who need to curb their salt intake.
For these reasons, it’s recommended to stick to one or two servings of seaweed per week.
14 Great Tasting Seaweed Recipes
Enjoy the fantastic benefits of seaweed in these delicious recipes:
Celeriac & Carrot Soup with Kombu Dashi – a creamy, slightly sweet and comforting soup which is quick and easy to make. With fragrant celeriac, Vitamin A-rich carrots and a nutritious kombu broth.
5-Minute Miso Soup with Dulse – whip up this wholesome miso soup, laden with minerals and the power of probiotics. For extra goodness, add in another seaweed such as nori, or extra vegetables like mushrooms, green chard or kale.
Potato Chips with Nori Salt – boost the nutrient-content of these comforting homemade chips with a sprinkling of nori salt – the perfect cocktail-party nibble.
Green Smoothie with Seaweed – a beautiful glass of green goodness with alaria seaweed, blueberry juice, leafy greens, pineapple, banana, ginger, hemp and flax. (Of course, seaweed flakes would also work great when added to any of these green smoothie recipes.)
Basic Beans – add a strip of dried kombu to your pot of dried beans before cooking. Not only will the seaweed impart flavor, it will reduce the gas-producing properties of these protein-rich legumes.
Wasabi Toasted Nori Sheets – a simple savory snack that’s healthy, spicy, crunchy, low calorie and totally more-ish.
Sushi (without a mat) – probably one of the most common ways to eat seaweed, this sushi recipe is especially useful as you don’t even need a mat to prepare it. Enjoy the umami-rich combination of sticky rice, crunchy veggies, wasabi, ginger and soy sauce from the comfort of your own home.
Seaweed Kimchi – amp up the digestive benefits of this traditional Japanese fermented dish with the addition of some of your favorite sea vegetables.
Eat Your Greens Detox Soup – not your average detox soup, this recipe promises a flavor explosion thanks to its abundant use of vegetables like garlic, mushrooms, carrots, broccoli, kale and nori, along with healing spices such as ginger, turmeric, cumin and cinnamon. The perfect pick-me-up.
Wakame Salad with Miso Dressing – a wonderfully unique Asian salad of seaweed, wild mushrooms, apple and carrot, all drizzled with a flavorsome sesame and miso dressing.
Chickpea ‘Tuna’ Salad Sandwich – this plant-based version of the classic tuna sandwich is just as hearty, and even smells and tastes like the sea thanks to the clever use of flaked seaweed.
Blackened Cabbage with Kelp Brown Butter – caramelized cabbage pairs perfectly with a kelp butter and some fresh basil for an unusual yet delicious side dish.
Sprouted Seaweed Hummus – for a completely different take on traditional hummus, this sprouted chickpea version (which is easier on the digestive system) is a must-make. With alaria, garlic, organic garbanzos, olive oil, lemon juice, tamari and smoked paprika.
Gingered Sea Vegetable Salad – arame cooked in apple juice provides a sweet flavor, and adds a little something extra to a healthy salad of greens, veggies, and herbs. For a more filling meal, serve with black-eyed peas.