Ever wondered about that little green strip of seaweed holding your sushi together?
Sure, it's been a staple in the diets of many Asian cultures and coastal communities for centuries, but these days, seaweed has officially gone mainstream. School cafeterias across the country are full of kids happily munching on the dried version, and even traditional supermarkets stock a variety of types and flavors.
But why, exactly, are we all going wild for a plant that used to be known mainly for its propensity to clog up boat motors? The flavor is appealing—light and slightly salty—but the real appeal is the impressive health benefits.
Seaweed is low in calories, high in fiber and heart healthy omega-3 fatty acid, plus its protein content is similar to that of an egg. It is also bursting with important micronutrients like iron, which helps with red blood cell development, and iodine, an important nutrient for thyroid function.
Seaweed is the general name for a variety of different saltwater algae with different uses and textures that add umami (savory) flavor and a unique briny depth to dishes. Seaweed is classified by its color and comes in three varieties: brown (look for kelp, wakame, kombu, and arame), red (dulse, nori, Irish moss) or green (sea grass and sea lettuce).
Eating the green stuff may also help reduce the risk of breast cancer. Seaweed is packed with antioxidants, which can help decrease inflammation, an underlying cause of chronic diseases like cancer. Moreover, seaweed is high in lignan, (a polyphenol which may help prevent breast cancer) and iodine. The high iodine content in seaweed is believed to be one of the contributing factors to the low incidence of cancer in Japanese women.
Seaweed may also help keep our guts healthy. Almost 70 percent of the immune system is located in our gut, which means keeping the gut happy and healthy keeps the rest of you running in good order. Brown seaweed like wakame or arame is a good source of the soluble fiber alginate, an all-star when it comes to digestive health. It helps keep the gut functioning at its best by strengthening the gut’s mucus, which is its first line of defense against toxins.
Alginate goes a step further and helps with weight maintenance by lowering the amount of fat your body absorbs and slowing the rate of food absorption in the gut, which keeps you feeling fuller, longer.
The three classifications of seaweed all have different uses and benefits. Red seaweed tends to be high in potassium. Brown is high in calcium, iodine, folate and magnesium, and may help lower blood pressure. Green seaweeds are high in B-vitamins and the antioxidants beta-carotene and chlorophyll. Chlorophyll not only provides the color, it can help prevent damage to the DNA done by chemical carcinogens and radiation.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont