Many varieties of sea vegetables have traveled out of health food stores and into local supermarkets and American homes. Why? According to the George Mateljan Foundation, “they offer the broadest range of minerals of any food, containing virtually all the minerals found in the ocean—the same minerals that are found in human blood.”
Although we associate sea vegetables with Asian cuisine (they have been consuming it for over 10,000 years), almost all sea-bordering countries have included seaweeds in their diet: Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Scotland, the Pacific Islands and South American countries.
Sea vegetables aren’t really plants: they are technically algae and there are thousands of different varieties. The most popular are Arame, Dulse, Hijiki, Kelp, Kombu, Nori and Wakame.
Arame is a mild and sweet, lacy and wiry sea vegetable.
Dulse is a chewy and soft seaweed.
Hijiki is a strong-flavored sea vegetable that looks like wiry, black pasta.
Kelp varies from light brown to dark green in color.
Kombu is sometimes sold as a soup flavoring and is very dark.
Nori is the purple-black variety of seaweed that turns green when toasted and is the one we’re most familiar with for its use in sushi rolls.
Wakame may be sold in strips or sheets like Kombu and is often used to flavor soups.
Source of Healthy Nutrients
What are some of the many nutrients sea vegetables contain? They’re an excellent source of natural iodine and vitamin K, a great source of folate and magnesium and a good source of iron, calcium, riboflavin and pantothenic acid.
In addition, seaweeds contain beta carotene, niacin, potassium, phosphorous, selenium, vitamins A and C and 18 different amino acids.
Sea vegetables also contain lignans, phytonutrients that inhibit cancer tumor growth and estrogen synthesis in fat cells that are linked to breast cancer.
More Health Benefits
The folic acid in sea vegetables may reduce the risk of colon cancer, prevent birth defects and help protect blood vessel walls.
The natural iodine in seaweeds helps to regulate thyroid function.
Some sea vegetables contain fucans, compounds similar to carbohydrates that can reduce inflammation in the body.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) says that compounds in many types of algae have slowed cancer cell growth in both animal and laboratory research but studies haven’t been conducted to determine seaweed’s ability to do the same in humans.
ACS also points out that seaweed supplements are very different from the whole-food form and that nutrient content changes as sea vegetables are dried. They recommend eating whole seaweed rather than taking supplements to take in a healthy variety of plant-based foods.
Heavy Metal Concerns
One of the reasons sea vegetables are such a great source of nutrients is due to their absorptive abilities (kelp stem was once used to widen the cervix in medical procedures.) This capability makes seaweeds vulnerable to polluted waters. Sea vegetables can sponge up arsenic, cadmium and lead. They’ve even been used to measure the content of such pollutants in bodies of water by marine ecologists.
In particular, hijiki may contain high levels of arsenic if you don’t buy organic varieties.There is still a lack of consensus among scientists about whether or not the inorganic forms of arsenic found in seaweeds are as harmful as the organic forms but sea vegetables are still included in The World’s Healthiest Foods because of their health benefits and because dangers can be avoided by buying organic varieties.
Whole Foods Market offers some advice for ways to add sea vegetables to your diet other than eating sushi: sprinkle on top of salads, add to soups, use as a substitute for salt as a flavor enhancer, mix re-hydrated sea vegetables with shredded carrots and ginger and add salad dressing.