Although you may only see it on visits to your favorite Japanese restaurant, seaweed is more than just wrapping for sushi rolls or swimming in miso soup. Seaweed is rich in many vitamins, including A, B complex, B12, C, and E. Seaweed is also a great source of minerals, including calcium, potassium, and iron. Protein, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids are additional benefits of seaweed. Research suggests that seaweed could help reduce the risk of many chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes type 2, and possibly breast cancer.
To starting reaping the benefits of seaweed, you don’t have to eat a lot — just a very small serving every day or so (about ½ to 1 teaspoon). You do have to consume it more regularly than just on occasional sushi outings, though.
Eating seaweed on a regular basis is certainly a challenge for me — and I imagine it might be for you, too, if you didn’t grow up eating it!
Seaweed is one of the largest forms of algae, organisms that grow in water. There are dozens of species of red, brown, and green seaweed used worldwide as food, and it’s a dietary staple in some Asian countries. For example, the Chinese consume over 70 different varieties of seaweed. And of course, seaweed is used throughout Japanese cuisine.
In the U.S., however, it’s only recently that seaweed has become more available in large grocery stores (near the soy sauce and rice wine vinegar). If you live in an urban area, you can find seaweed at Asian markets. You can find a decent variety of options if you look around. Sushi stands and restaurants often sell green seaweed salad flavored with sesame oil. Tons of dried seaweed options are available at online health food stores. Dried seaweed quickly rehydrates in water or soup, and dried seaweed squares flavored with sesame oil, wasabi, or other ingredients have become popular low-calorie nutritious snacks.
The taste of seaweed depends on the type, but I often find it seriously briny, a little bit fishy, and chewy unless dried or toasted. The most common types available include:
Nori: What you find around most sushi rolls, its dark purple color turns phosphorescent green when toasted.
Kombu: Used to flavor soups, this darkly colored seaweed is usually sold in strips or sheets.
Wakame: Most commonly used to make Japanese miso soup (and similar to kombu).
Kelp: Often sold in flake form as a naturally salty topping for rice, this seaweed is light brown to dark green in color.
Dulse: A soft and chewy seaweed that is a reddish-brown color, this is found along the coast of Iceland, Ireland, and Scotland and eaten as a snack.
Arame: A sweet, mild-tasting seaweed that has a lacy, wiry appearance
Hijiki: This strong-flavored seaweed looks like small strands of black spaghettini. Because it can contain elevated levels of arsenic, experts recommend only consuming certified organic hijiki.
All seaweed types appear to be nutritious, although each type differs in nutrient content. For example, some types of seaweed have significantly more iodine than others, particularly dry kelp. Seaweed can be an important source of dietary iodine, but make sure not to overdo it. Research has linked excessive consumption of iodine to a slightly increased risk for thyroid cancer. To be safe, experts advise keeping seaweed consumption moderate and choosing the lower-iodine types of seaweed, such as dulse, wakame, or sushi-friendly nori.
Seaweed’s other health claims:
Possible breast cancer risk reduction: Scientists don’t yet know for sure if seaweed consumption has any role in promoting healthy breast cell function and reducing the risk of breast cancer, but research suggests that it might. In animal studies, the root of wakame seaweed (called mekabu) suppressed tumor growth in breast tissue. But it’s hard to study any direct effect in humans because it’s one of many things that we consume. Even without clear proof, the possibility that seaweed could help promote breast health is intriguing, given the wide consumption of seaweed, like mekabu, in Japan, where breast cancer rates are low.
Lower blood pressure: Seaweed contains bioactive peptides, a type of protein found mainly in milk products that can help reduce high blood pressure. Bioactive peptides have similar properties to ACE inhibitors — drugs commonly prescribed to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke from high blood pressure.
Other health benefits: Seaweed appears to be protective in other, more general ways. Brown seaweeds such as kelp, wakame, and hijiki contain a compound called fucoidan that lowers inflammation and may prevent infection. They also contain antioxidants, which can stop the formation of disease-causing free radicals. Substances that reduce inflammation may reduce the risk of all kinds of “dis-eases” (unhealthy forces on the body’s health), including breast cancer.
Studies also point to seaweed playing a potential role in reducing adult-onset diabetes, protecting the heart, and lessening hay fever. Ongoing research suggests seaweed might even aid in weight control. For instance, according to one early study, people who eat bread made with seaweed for breakfast tend to feel full so they are less likely to eat throughout the day.
Acquiring a taste for seaweed
Although I haven’t seen any seaweed bread at my grocery store yet, I’m trying to figure out new ways to incorporate seaweed into my diet. The taste of some products takes getting used to, honestly. But I’ve heard that once people start to eat seaweed, they come to crave its briny, seaside goodness. So I’m determined to keep trying!
A friend recommended one easy, no-cooking way to work seaweed into my diet: Keep a container of kelp flakes on the table. She uses the low-sodium flakes instead of salt to add a subtle flavor boost to salads and rice dishes. Another option is seaweed gomasio, a popular blend of roasted sesame seeds, sea salt, and seaweed. Sold pre-mixed in a shaker, it’s a great condiment on all sorts of dishes.
I’ve tried to make homemade sushi after watching the sushi guys at my local Japanese restaurant. All it takes is cooked short-grain sushi rice, some nori wrappers, and a simple bamboo mat — available in kitchen stores and online. You need a firm touch for the rolling action and a bowl of warm water to dip your fingers in between rolls, to remove rice that sticks to your fingers. You also need a sharp, clean knife to cut the roll into pieces. You get better after a few attempts. Get started with vegetarian rolls, with some thinly sliced cucumbers, carrots, and avocado!
I’m also going to start adding seaweed into my salads, soups, and vegetable dishes. If you have any favorite seaweed recipes or cooking tips, I’d love some suggestions. Share your ideas in the comments section below!
Meanwhile, we’re pleased to include a recipe from Dynise Balcavage, author of The Urban Vegan and Celebrate Vegan:
Easy, Raw Arame Salad
2 cups arame
2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon ginger, finely minced
1 tablespoon raw apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoon cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil
1 small Vidalia or other sweet onion, sliced very thinly
1 large tomato, chopped
½ red pepper, chopped
sea salt and pepper, to taste
Soak arame in water until soft (about 3 hours, depending on the texture). Drain.
Make dressing: In a small bowl, stir together garlic, ginger, oil, and vinegar.
Toss everything together in a large bowl. Adjust seasonings. Tastes best if you let it sit overnight.