I remember the first time I ever ate seaweed. I was a kid, maybe 10, and I hated it. My dad was really into seaweed at the time, he’d buy bags of it from the health food store to eat as it was or to make sushi rolls. He’d give me pieces to try and I always thought they were nasty. Fast-forward to highschool when I started eating sushi, I wouldn’t say that I loved seaweed then, but I grew comfortable with it. Fast-forward to me becoming vegan and it took a while, but eventually I warmed up to it. Now I love some nori sprinkled over a salad, some dulse on a sandwich, some wakame in my miso soup. I love seaweed chips, I love toasted nori sheets, I love all those fun little seaweed snacks you can pick up at the Asian markets. I love that pungent, aromatic, sometimes salty ocean flavor, and the best part is that sea vegetables are so incredibly good for you, so you can feel good about eating them.
A lot of us commonly think of sea vegetables os seaweeds as being an integral ingredient in Asian dishes, but the truth is that many cultures around the world have been enjoying this rich, nutrient dense food for centuries. Asia may have the longest recorded tradition of consuming sea vegetables - more then 10,000 years - but many other countries located near water also have a history with seaweed, such as Scotland, Ireland, Norway, Iceland, New Zealand, the South Pacific Islands, and even parts of costal South America.
What a lot of people don’t realize about sea vegetables is the overwhelming variety of them. More then a thousand types of seaweed exist, and they’re broken down into three distinct categories based on color, brown, green, or red. Each type is unique, having a different shape, texture, and taste. They grow in two places, marine salt waters and freshwater lakes and seas. They may grow on coral reefs or rocky landscapes and can grow at virtually any depth provided sunlight can penetrate through the water to where they reside, as like plants, seaweed needs light for survival. Interestingly sea vegetables are not considered to be either plant nor animal, but are classified as algae.
It might surprise you to learn that sea vegetables offer one of the broadest ranges of minerals of any food, containing virtually all the minerals found in the ocean. In addition to offering a unique variety of phytonutrients and antioxidants. They’re also an excellent source of iodine, manganese, B Vitamins, potassium, iron, zinc, and phosphorus.
Sea vegetables also provide anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anticoagulant, antithrombotic, and antiviral benefits due to their unique sulfated polysaccharides. Sea vegetables anti-inflammatory benefits seem to take place by blocking selectins - sugar protein molecules - and from inhibiting an enzyme called phospholipase A2. During an inflammatory response selectins allow inflammatory signals to be transmitted into the cells, so by blocking selectins response, inflammatory signaling can be lessened. Over activity of the enzyme phospholipase A2 is widely present in unwanted inflammatory problems, and is important for creating the omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid (AA.) AA itself provides the basis for a wide variety of pro-inflammatory massaging molecules and in fact many corticosteroid medications lower inflammation by blocking PLA2.
Sulfated polysaccharides are also responsible for sea vegetables cardiovascular benefits, as they can decrease the tendency of blood platelet cells to coagulate and form clots. Sea vegetables have also been shown to help reduce total and LDL cholesterol.
Sea vegetables sulfated polysaccharides have also shown anti-viral activity, most notably in lab research conducted on Herpes Simplex Virus 1 and 2. It was shown that by blocking the binding sites used by HSV-1 and HSV-2 for cell attachment that sulfated polysaccharides help prevent replication of these viruses. Though we do not yet known whether or not dietary intake of sea vegetables can help prevent HSV replication in individuals with HSV.
Sea vegetables may be of particular benefit in the prevention of estrogen related cancer, particularly breast cancer. As intake of sea vegetables appears to modify various aspects of a woman’s menstrual cycle in such a way that over time - tens of years - the total cumulative estrogen secretion that occurs during the follicular phase of the cycle gets reduced. Since the overproduction of estrogen can play a role in the risk of breast cancer for women who are estrogen sensitive sea vegetables can offer some unique benefits here. It’s also important to remember that cholesterol is required as a building block for the production of estrogen and intake of sea vegetables has repeatedly shown to lower cholesterol.
Sea Vegetables may also be particularly helpful when it comes to colon cancer, and research has focused heavily in this area with a special emphasis on the loss of calcium-sensing receptors (CaSRs) in colon cancer cells, and the ability of sea vegetable extracts to alter CaSR-related events. Of course since chronic, unwanted inflammation and chronic oxidative stress are both risk factors for development of cancer it’s possible that sea vegetables could be helpful in prevention of numerous cancers.
Sea vegetables may be able to help us increase our cells' sensitivity to insulin, help us prevent overproduction of glucose by our cells, and help us take existing blood sugars and convert them into storable starches. All of these factors would help us increase our blood sugar control, and lower our risk of type 2 diabetes.
Brown algae like kombu/kelp, wakame, and arame can be particularly concentrated sources of iodine, and for some health conditions - like hypothyroidism, in which the cells of the thyroid make too little thyroid hormone - increased iodine intake can provide important health benefits.
The antioxidant content of sea vegetables is also rather impressive, because sea vegetables not only contain measurable amounts of polyphenols like carotenoids and flavonoids, they also contain other phytonutrient antioxidants, including several types of alkaloids that have been shown to possess antioxidant properties. Coupled with measurable amounts of antioxidant vitamins (like vitamins C and E) and antioxidant minerals (like manganese and zinc), sea vegetables can be expected to help us reduce our risk of unwanted oxidative stress and many types of cardiovascular problems that are associated with poor antioxidant intake.
So you see, sea vegetables are really amazing!
Sea Vegetable Types -
Arame - Brown Algae, limited to the temperate Pacific Ocean waters around Japan, though it is often cultivated in South Korea. It has a mild, semi-sweet flavor and firm texture.
Bladderwrack - A Brown Algae, the most common algae on the shores of the British Isles. It is typically found on the coasts of the North Sea, the Western Baltic Sea and both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It’s been recorded from the Atlantic shores of Europe, to Northern Russia, to Greenland, the Canary Islands, Morocco, Madeira, to the Atlantic Coast of North America, Hudson’s Bay, to North Carolina. In North America it isn’t used as a food so much as it is an herbal medicine or remedy.
Chlorella - a single cell green algae high in protein and containing a significant amount of minerals. Usually sold as powder, or tablets and is commonly taken as a health supplement, rather then as an ingredient in cooking.
Dulce - A Red Algae, growing on the Northern coasts of the Atlantic and Pacific, as well as Iceland where it’s a popular snack food and has been consumed for centuries as a traditional food. Usually sold in large dried strips, and is quite tasty on salads or lightly crisped in a pan to place on a sandwich.
Hijiki - Brown Algae, grows along the rocky coastlines of Japan, Korea and China. Somewhat similar to Arame but with a stronger flavor.
Irish Moss - A Red Algae growing abundantly along the rocky coasts of Atlantic Europe and North America.. A common ingredient in some traditional Irish and Scottish cooking. Also commonly used in Asian gelatin like desserts. In North America it’s commonly used as a thickener in many commercial products and has recently found a new use in the vegan community for making vegan cheese, and raw food desserts.
Kombu - Brown Algae, and an edible kelp commonly cultivated on the shores of Japan and Korea. Used extensively in Japanese cooking especially to make soups. It’s also a great addition to making a pot of beans from scratch!
Laver - Red Algae, a common ingredients in Welsh cooking and traditional Welsh dishes such as Laver bread. It’s also commonly found in the cuisines of Ireland, Scotland, Whales, China, Japan, and Korea, and may be one of the first kinds of algae to be cultivated.
Sea Lettuce - Green Algae, widely distributed along the coasts of the worlds oceans. It is particularly common in Scandinavia, Great Britain, Ireland, China and Japan.
Wakame - Brown Algae, grown in Japan and Korea, but also commonly cultivated in sea farms in France off the coast of Brittany, and Tasmania in Australia. It has a subtly sweet flavor and slippery texture. Usually used in soups.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of sea vegetables but it contains the most common ones.
So, now that you’ve gone to the health food store and bought some bags of seaweed, what the heck do you do with it? Easy, make Sushi Maki rolls! Or if that’s too much time and trouble for you make a sushi salad! All your sushi ingredients diced up in a bowl, no rolling required, just sprinkle the nori over top. You could put it in miso soup, or any other Asian inspired soup, or any soup in which a little ocean flavor is needed. Such as a vegan ‘clam’ chowder. Try it as a salad topping or make a seaweed salad by soaking some arame and then mixing it with some diced vegetables and a nice Asian style dressing. Toss it into a raw kelp noodle dish, or top a stir-fry with it. Heck, just buy some roasted seaweed sheets from the Asian grocery and eat it as is! Super yummy! Get creative with it, and don’t be afraid to try new things.