In recent years, seaweed has really come out from behind the sushi bar; it’s sold in most health food stores, available in pre-made salads, included in more and more clean recipes, and even sold alone as a packaged snack. So why should we eat it? “The short answer is that seaweed is all minerals, straight from the sea,” says Terry Walters, health counselor and author of CLEAN FOOD and CLEAN START—two of my personal favorite cookbooks, and ones that happen to be chock full of ideas for incorporating more sea vegetables into your diet.
When I spoke to Walters about why she’s such a fan of using seaweed in her cooking, she explained that seaweed’s mineral content is especially beneficial for women’s bone strength, because “we absorb [calcium and minerals] better in food form than pill form.” While different sea vegetables have different nutrient profiles, generally, they’re “incredibly heart-healthy, supportive to the liver and nervous system,” and she explains that “there’s even a school of thought that sea vegetables help break down masses like tumors or cysts, and flush inflammation from the body.”
This last point is key to one of the biggest benefits: Even if you aren’t hoping that seaweed will break down tumors, it can definitely help reduce inflammation in the body by lowering your internal pH. “The body actually wants to be slightly more alkaline than acid,” says Walters. “And the things that make the body acidic are sugar, preservatives, artificial ingredients, animal protein, dairy, complex carbs, caffeine, chocolate, stress, and lack of sleep.” On the other hand, “things that make the body slighty alkaline are minerals, mostly [in the form of] dark leafy greens and sea vegetables.”
But before you feast on seaweed, there are a few things to watch out for: “Nothing is perfect,” Walters explains. Certain types have tested dangerously high for mercury, such as hijiki. “I used to eat a lot of hijiki—ironically, it has one of the strongest tastes, but I love it. But eight to 10 years ago it started testing high for mercury, and many manufacturers stopped making it for that reason. Whole Foods even took it off the shelves and stopped selling it.” And, like most foods, you should learn a little about where it comes from:
Like any other food, you do want to know where it’s coming from, so that you know what it really is and what’s in it. You want it to come from clean water; most seaweed from the U.S. comes from farms on the coast of Maine or Seattle, and the main producers/packagers in this country test their sea vegetables.
Walters warns not to buy from Asian grocers if you can’t read the labels. “It doesn’t mean you’re not getting a good product, but i can’t read the label so i don’t know where it’s coming from.”
And lastly, there are some health conditions—especially a tendency towards hypothyroid—that just don’t go well with seaweed: “There are people who are contraindicated and shouldn’t eat sea vegetables, and usually for them the sea vegetables are likely to taste foul.” But since many people aren’t accustomed to the taste of seaweed, Walters recommends testing the waters a bit before you give up: “If you haven’t had them, ease your way in and give them a try, but after two or three tries, if they’re tasting like the bottom of the ocean, they’re not for you.”
Check out Walters’ ideas for how to eat more seaweed on a regular basis–and try her recipe for Toasted Sesame Nori Crisps, too!