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Can Seaweed Benefit Your Health and Well-Being?

09/15/2015 12:17 EDT | Updated 09/15/2016 05:12 EDT
Boris Ryzhkov via Getty Images

Since celebrity chef Jamie Oliver credited his recent weight loss to sleep and seaweed, I've been asked many questions about the popular sea veggie. I first blogged about seaweed in 2013 and its popularity has increased since then. Originally a delicacy in many Asian countries, seaweed is gaining international popularity. There are over 20 types of edible seaweed and even more are being discovered.

Common types of seaweed include nori, kombu, kelp, dulce and Irish moss. Most seaweed varies in colour including green, brown and red. Similar to other vegetables, research suggests seaweed has fibre, vitamins and minerals that benefit your overall health and well-being. Let's explore seaweed's health attributes and then see how you can add it to your menu.

Seaweed and Weight Loss

Newcastle University researchers Dr. Iain Brownlee, Professor Jeff Pearson, and their team have been studying the effects of a specific fibre, alginate, found in seaweed. Through their research, preliminary results have demonstrated that alginate found in the walls of brown seaweed may be effective at reducing fat digestion and promoting satiety (the feeling of fullness). These initial findings suggest that the fibre alginate could offer a very real solution to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. This of course goes along with practicing a healthy lifestyle including my equation of energy = food + fitness + sleep.

Seaweed and Thyroid Metabolism

Seaweed, specifically kombu, is known for its high content of iodine, which is needed to produce two important thyroid hormones necessary for a stable metabolism. Our bodies don't make iodine, so we have to get it through food. If you have a family history of thyroid dysfunction or thyroid cancer, it is important to discuss adding seaweed to your meal plan with your dietitian. Otherwise, seaweed is an excellent food source containing the essential nutrient of iodine and can easily be added to your menu.

Seaweed and Immune Health

For thousands of years, this mineral-rich sea veggie has been a staple in Asian diets, where it's thought to impart health and beauty. Known for its anti-inflammatory and immune boosting properties, seaweed is a source of omega-3 fatty acids. These essential omega-3 fats help reduce inflammation in the body, contributing to a lower risk of developing chronic diseases. Also, seaweed contains varying amounts of plant protein (nori having the highest amount) that are important to promoting a healthy immune system. When your immune system is in balance, the rest of your body benefits including your skin, hair and nails.

Adding Seaweed to Your Menu

With over 20 types of edible seaweed available, there are numerous ways you can add it to your menu. If you're not familiar with the taste of seaweed, it has an earthy, umami flavour similar to mushrooms, fermented vegetables and some cured meats. Umami is now recognized as one of the basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. The taste of umami closely relates to the experience of savoury, meaty, or broth-like. Umami has been a trend topic with chefs for quite a while now, but I believe the general consumer is taking umami foods, such as seaweed, from the occasional sushi to an everyday occurrence.

Kombu

Let's start with kombu. It comes in long, thick brown strips. Kombu can be used to make broth. It can be added to bean dishes or soups, and it can be softened by simmering in water and then added to salads. People use it to make dashi (Japanese soup stock) by cooking four cups of water over low heat, and then adding eight inches of kombu that has been cut in half. It is simmered over low heat and finished by straining the stock. Sometimes dried shiitake mushrooms are added for extra flavour.

Nori

Next up is nori. Best known as the outer wrap of sushi rolls, this is probably the most popular seaweed, thanks to the Japanese. Almost all major cities in the world have sushi bars and restaurants. Its sweet and umami flavours are also easily accepted by most people for home cooking. Grocery stores and speciality food markets often have nori in sheets, strips, or flakes. You can add them to a wrap, tuck them inside a sandwich, or cut them into strips and toss into a salad or soup. Nori makes delicious seaweed chips by drizzling olive oil onto them and baking until crisp. The latest trend I've seen is using nori for taco shells!

There is evidence of the beneficial effects of seaweed and seaweed components on markers of human health. However, there are still knowledge gaps based on the limited human research, making it important for consumers to stay tuned for results from future human clinical trials and not to use seaweed as a magic bullet. As we learn more about seaweed, there is no time like the present to have fun exploring and experimenting with adding moderate amounts of seaweed to your menu. Let me know what your favourite seaweed recipe is!

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