Sea Vegetables: The Forgotten Superfood
By Christina Pasternak More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the FOOD-A-MINS Blog Series
Sea vegetables, more commonly known as seaweed, are one of the earth’s most abundant and nutritious foods, yet they are also one of the least consumed. Why? Well, maybe, like me, the thought of eating seaweed sends shivers up your spine. The only previous experience I had with it were my nails-on-a-chalkboard screams when I’d discover a long, slimy piece of seaweed stuck to my one-piece after taking a swim in the lake as a little girl. However, a few years into my wellness journey, when I started researching the voluminous medicinal qualities and health benefits of this mysterious food, I started to look past the cringe-worthy properties I associated with vegetables from the sea. Not only that, I courageously began eating them and have experienced the endless benefits of this nutritional powerhouse ever since.
Vitamins and Minerals
Sea vegetables include red, green, and brown algae found in water and along the coast in tide pools. They are the earth’s oldest plant family and are particularly special because, ounce for ounce, seaweed is higher in vitamins and minerals than any other food. Because they live in mineral-rich ocean waters, they have an impressive supply of nutrients. Sea vegetables provide all 56 minerals and elements needed to survive. In fact, research shows that their mineral proportions are very similar to those found in human blood.
The most significant elements are iodine, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, magnesium, and iron. Sea vegetables are also a rich source of fiber and protein, with some varieties containing up to 28% protein. They are also an excellent supply of vitamins A, B, C, and E.
Sea vegetables have extensive detoxification properties. Most varieties, particularly kelp, contain algin, a fiber molecule that can attract toxins, radioactive compounds, and heavy metals, which our body absorbs from environmental and medical sources. Algin attracts these elements within the digestive tract, such as lead and mercury, and removes them from our body’s system. Through the process of flushing out these toxins, the ability of these components to cause disease is reduced.
Sea vegetables contain a significant amount of naturally-occurring iodine. This mineral is critical to optimal thyroid function. Without iodine, our thyroid gland cannot produce appropriate levels of thyroid hormones, which are crucial for regulating our metabolism and sustaining a healthy life.
There are two main thyroid disorders: hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. Hypothyroidism, the more common of the two, occurs when the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough hormones. This can cause weight gain, hair loss, depression, heavy menstrual flow, infertility, and brittle hair and nails. Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland produces too many hormones, which can cause rapid heartbeat, breathlessness, weight loss, insomnia, nervousness, irritability, increased appetite, short or absent menstruation, and excessive sweating.
By adding sea vegetables to your diet, you can optimize your own thyroid function, particularly when faced with hypothyroidism. Conversely, because hyperthyroidism has been linked to excessive iodine intake, it is best to avoid foods high in this mineral.
Anti-Aging and Beautifying Benefits
Seaweed’s concentrated mineral, phytonutrient, and fiber content makes them an excellent beauty food. Fiber is an essential nutrient required for the regular removal of waste. The less efficient our digestive system is, the more toxic build-up we have in our body. This inevitably taxes our body’s other systems and creates internal imbalances. Because our skin is a reflection of our inner health, it’s important to eat nutrient-rich foods to balance our body, which will ultimately lead to healthy hair, skin, and nails.
Sea vegetables are high in antioxidants, which boost our immune system and help fight off aging and disease. The unique alkaloid antioxidants help reduce the risk of oxidative stress, ultimately reducing the risk of associated diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, chronic inflammation disorders, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of sea vegetables, though, is their dense concentration of sulfated polysaccharides, called fucoidan, which have shown significant potential in the treatment of cancer, specifically colon and cervical cancer.
- Agar-agar: A gelatin harvested from a particular type of red algae called gelidium, agar-agar is primarily used to thicken and stabilize foods and is a vegetarian alternative to gelatin. It can be used in both sweet and savory recipes. It has no taste and does not have a fishy smell like other sea vegetables. Agar-agar is an excellent starting point for introducing seaweed to children or people who have an aversion to seaweed or sea-flavored foods.
- Arame: A brown, thin seaweed that is rich in protein, iodine, calcium, and iron. If new to sea vegetables, this is also a great place to begin due to its milder, almost sweet flavor.
- Dulse: This red-purple seaweed is rich in iodine, iron, and calcium. Dulse can be purchased in strips, flakes, and a granulated powder. Dulse tends to have a fishier, saltier ocean flavor.
- Hijiki: A mineral-rich, high fiber seaweed in the form of very dark strands, almost like very thick hair. Hijiki contains 10-20% protein, vitamin A, and is the most concentrated source of calcium, iron, and phosphorus. Gram for Gram, it has 14 times more calcium than milk.
- Kelp: A brown seaweed that is common as a food supplement, usually for its iodine to treat hypothyroidism. It is typically used in smaller quantities than the other sea vegetables, and is also useful for prostate, pancreas, and digestive health. It also contains protein, calcium, potassium, and B vitamins.
- Kombu: Known as a richer, higher-protein, mineral-rich seaweed commonly used in soups to enhance flavor and boost nutritional value of the broth. Kombu contains vitamin A, some vitamin Bs, and a significant amount of calcium and iron.
- Nori: One of the most commonly used seaweeds, these dark sheets are often used as a sushi wrapper and have a sweeter flavor. Nori is 28% protein and is high in fiber, vitamin A, calcium, iodine, iron, and phosphorus.
- Purple laver: A lesser known red seaweed that is rich in beta-carotene and lutein. It is usually purchased in dry sheets and soaked in water before using in recipes.
- Wakame: A high protein brown seaweed that is thin and flat. It contains vitamin A, is rich in calcium, iron, and sodium, as well as some vitamin C.
Due to the unfortunately high levels of pollution in our world’s oceans today, it is crucial to always opt for organic sea vegetables. As noted earlier, seaweed is so remarkably concentrated in vitamins and minerals because it lives in the ocean. It acts as a sponge, soaking up all the naturally-occurring nutrients found in its environment. For this reason, organic seaweed is the healthiest and safest choice because it guarantees the product is only sourced from clean waters, it is not contaminated with heavy metals, and has been freshly harvested.
Fortunately, seaweed does not need to be consumed in large amounts to experience its health benefits - usually no more than 1/4 cup, making the organic varieties more affordable. Dried organic seaweeds are readily available in most health food stores. I prefer Maine Coast Sea Vegetables or Eden Organic brands.
Unless I’m the only person who has refused to eat sea vegetables for the majority of my life, you may be wondering how to incorporate this mysterious, yet incredibly basic, superfood into your diet. Stay tuned later in the week for some of my favorite recipes, some of which you won’t even be able to tell you’re eating seaweed. Bonus!
Haas, E.M. (2006). Staying healthy with nutrition: The complete guide to diet and nutritional medicine. New York: Random House, Inc.
Wood, R. (2010). The new whole foods encyclopedia. New York, NY: Penguin Books, Inc.