Health Benefits of Seaweed – more than just a Superfood

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We look at the health benefits of seaweed. These edible marine algae have increasingly come under the spotlight with many studies proving their health properties. Seaweed might just be more than a superfood

A scientific journal published a couple of months ago proposes that the antiviral properties of various seaweeds may help us find the solutions for the coronavirus pandemic

Seaweeds are also “a promising bioresource for the future,” said a report funded by the European Unioncalled PEGASUS, citing that the demand for seaweed is growing in Europe. The global production of seaweed is estimated at 30 million tonnes per year worth 8.1 billion euros from 50 countries.

It’s an opportune time to know more about these sea vegetables. How are they consumed, how much is enough daily, and are they all safe to eat?

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The three main groups of seaweed are divided by colors, which are brown seaweed (Phaeophyta) such as kelp and wakame, red seaweed (Rhodophyta) which includes nori and ogonori, and green seaweed (Chlorophyta) such as umibudo.

Seaweeds are low in calories and fat, but high in minerals such as calcium, copper and iron, as well as iodine, which is essential to thyroid function. They’re also rich in protein, fibers, vitamins and polyphenols which have antioxidants and are anti-inflammatory. Numerous studies have shown that seaweed has been found effective in fighting various cancers.

Nori is among the most nutritious seaweeds, containing up to 50% protein and “significant amounts of Vitamins A, C, niacin and folic acid,” as well as being surprisingly low in sodium, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Nori is also high in glutamate, which gives the complex umami flavor, making it an ideal addition to meatless stocks. Unlike sodium salts, the potassium salt contained in seaweed doesn’t lead to high blood pressure.

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Seaweeds come as dried sheets for snacks or sushi rolls, or as the base of dashi stock which is ubiquitous in Japanese food. In more tropical climates, umibudo or sea grapes are sold fresh to be blanched and eaten in salads. Many people add kelp powder to smoothies or meals for an additional nutrient boost.

The eagle eyes among you may also note that carrageenan (an extract from red seaweed) is also a common ingredient in many low-fat foods. It is used as a thickener in plant milks, ice cream and yoghurt, which has high fiber content and prebiotic effects that can improve gut health.

You can easily add nutrient-rich seaweed to your diet by snacking on dried nori crackers, making your own sushi or adding kombu or kelp to your soups, stews and smoothies. Some say dried dulse (Palmaria palmata) even tastes like bacon.

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Because seaweed has high iodine content, consuming too much could impair thyroid function. It could be a “habitual intake of seaweed with an iodine content exceeding 45 mg/kg of dry weight,” as a study suggested. 

Though high levels of iodine won’t affect most people some are more sensitive to high doses and this can result in weight gain or swelling.

Researchers proposed that seaweed products should include iodine content on product labeling to avoid excessive iodine intake. A 2019 research cited that in the United Kingdom, only 22 out of 224 food products that contain seaweed have iodine content on food labeling, while 40 products provide estimated iodine content.

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Wild seaweed was traditionally the primary source of edible seaweeds, but today, it’s mostly cultivated in seaweed farms. Seaweed cultivation is becoming more popular worldwide. Once it is planted, seaweed requires very little maintenance and it’s autotrophic, meaning it creates its own food. Kelp forests are intrinsic to the rich diversity of creatures that live in and around them.

As our coastal environments are highly effective at sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, seaweed farms are also valuable in helping to mitigate climate change. Now, that counts as more than a superfood.

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