What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of seaweed? I’m willing to bet that nine times out of ten, the answer is not “yum”. You’re probably picturing yourself cautiously jumping over slimy green weeds at the beach, avoiding them like the plague… Or perhaps your mind jumps to the dark coloured wrapping of sushi rolls? Either way, it’s not something the average Australian finds when they open their pantry.
In the context of culinary uses, it seems that seaweed is implicitly associated with Asian diets, typically Japanese, Korean and in some instances, a Chinese diet. Despite the fact that seaweed has been hailed for many supposed health benefits, the idea of eating seaweed is still a fairly novel one in Western countries such as Australia. Is it because we can’t seem to push past the preconceived slimy texture? Perhaps! Is it because it’s unfamiliar? Probably. However, just remember that 10 years ago your average Australian didn’t know what chia seeds or quinoa tasted like either…and now? Many of us stock it in our pantries and everyone has at least heard of it. I mean, how can we not? These have embedded themselves into the menus of all hipster trendy little cafes about town (I know, what a time to be alive, right?).
But what if I were to tell you that you’re most likely already eating seaweed and you just don’t know it yet…Hang tight – you’re about to find out!
Health benefits of seaweed
What are the supposed health benefits of seaweed – and is it all a load of crock?
First of all, it is important to note that there are many various species of seaweed with various nutritional content. If you’re a seaweed fanatic, feel free to check out this detailed document by the FAO describing the various species… but then again, you could always just keep reading and get the gist right here. Currently, there is a limited amount of research regarding the health benefits of seaweed consumption or supplementation in humans. There have, however been numerous speculations about what the various species of “sea grass” can do for our health, including weight management, benefits for digestive health, and even management of chronic diseases. These claims need to be taken with a pinch of salt, however, due to the lack of consistent, reproducible data from human studies.
There is much stronger evidence regarding iodine and seaweed. Seaweed is a known good source of iodine, an essential component of thyroid hormone required for normal growth and metabolism. “How does seaweed accumulate this iodine,” you may ask? Well, seaweeds can absorb iodine from seawater and then concentrate it internally, accumulating more than 30,000 times the iodine concentration of seawater! Considering that the iodine content of most other foods is relatively low and the reemergence of iodine deficiency in Australia in recent times, seaweed can be a valuable source of iodine and an alternative to iodised salt.
In fact, just to give you an idea of the its iodine content, seaweed is expected to contain 80 to 2,500 μg of iodine per gram across different species – an impressive amount given the current recommended daily intake of iodine for an adult is 150 μg/day. Now compare this to say, regular full fat cow’s milk, which contains roughly 0.234 μg of iodine per gram (or 58.5μg per cup), it’s no wonder seaweed is being hailed as a “superfood”.
You may not always read the ingredient list of the food products you purchase (and neither might I myself) but they might contain constituents derived from seaweed. Ever heard of agar, aginate or carrageenan? These are all derived from seaweed and used as gelling agents, emulsifiers and/or fat replacements in the food industry. So, it is likely that you’re already eating a component of seaweed without being aware of it! Though you are probably not getting the nutritional benefits of the whole plant.
Fun fact: Many store-bought almond milks list this carrageenan in their ingredients. Despite the US Food and Drug Administration, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the World Health Organisation giving it the green light, carrageenan has received negative attention from almond-milk-drinkers all around the world, claiming that carrageenan is a carcinogen. According to the Journal of Environmental Nutrition, there are two main types of carrageenan: one that is acceptable to use in foods, and the other that is known as degraded carrageenan. Degraded carrageenan is formed when carrageenan undergoes treatment with acid and is broken down into its smaller constituents. This is the type of carrageenan which is a known carcinogen and is not permitted to be used in food. So, should you be spitting out your almond milk lattes? In my opinion, food products already undergo stringent safety testing before they’re even allowed to be sold to us, the consumer. It’s because of this that I’m inclined to say that it’s most likely a-okay to continue drinking that almond milk – or at least I will anyway!
Types of seaweed to use at home
- Nori = A dry, brittle sheet of seaweed used for rolling sushi (or kimbap, the Korean equivalent of a sushi roll).
- Furikake = A rice seasoning consisting of seaweed and various other ingredients such as salt and sesame seeds.
- Wakame = Small, dark-green/almost-black dehydrated pieces of sea weed typically used in miso soup and Japanese seaweed salad. These babies expand like crazy when in contact with water.
- Kelp or kombu = A brown/green seaweed typically used to make Japanese dashi stock.
Stay tuned for next month’s article featuring recipes on how to each of these species of iodine-rich seaweed!