Cheers to 2013!
By Jeanine Natale
As another sultry summer shimmies into full swing, why don’t we take a look at a refreshing, versatile, and wonderfully low-calorie/fat-free food that’s sure to add an interesting new dimension to light and healthy eating? Yes, seaweed! You’ve probably seen drifts of this common sea algae floating in the ocean waves, or in tangled clumps along the beach, but did you know it’s actually a delicious, nutritious, and surprisingly popular food? If you’ve had sushi or miso soup—even salad dressing, pudding, or ice cream—odds are, you’ve eaten seaweed. Heck, you’ve probably even brushed your teeth with it.
Naturally high in essential nutrients like iodine, potassium, and magnesium, seaweed is becoming more and more available not only in health food or international stores, but also at your local market, and there are different kinds of seaweed used in all kinds of yummy dishes. It’s been a staple in the diets of many coastal cultures from Japan to Scotland for centuries, and now the rest of the world is learning how good it really is for you. Five of the varieties you’re most likely to encounter are nori, wakame, kombu, hijiki, and carrageenan, also known as Irish moss.
Contrary to many beliefs, seaweed is not fishy or even overly salty in taste or odor. Some varieties, like carrageenan, are nearly flavorless, and can be a versatile ingredient in many kinds of sweet and savory recipes. Each type of seaweed, whether crunchy, salty, chewy, sweet, crispy, or slippery, has its own nutritional fingerprint, but all varieties of this remarkable sea algae offer the health-conscious eater a fat-free, low-to-no-calorie superbundle of essential vitamins and minerals—most notably iodine.
Iodine is perhaps best known as an ingredient added to table salt (ironically, sea salt does not contain iodine naturally). But because many of us would do well to lower our salt intake, seaweed offers an excellent low-sodium delivery system for iodine. Numerous international studies have shown that iodine plays an important role in regulating the thyroid, which helps keep your metabolism on an even keel. More importantly, according to a 2007 study by the World Health Organization, iodine deficiency is one of the world’s most preventable causes of mental retardation, with seaweed being one of the most accessible and easily digested sources of this essential mineral. Indeed, seaweed is vegan and gluten-free, and it poses much less danger of causing an allergic reaction than fish or shellfish—two other good sources of iodine—(although you should keep in mind that seaweed is often processed in the same facility as both fish and shellfish). Also gaining much worldwide attention is evidence that a diet supplemented with iodine, as well as vitamins B and E, may help in preventing or lessening the effects of fibrocystic breast disease.
Generally, you’ll find your different types of seaweeds available as dried sheets, flakes, or leaves, in prepared packages that usually weigh a couple of ounces each. (Single-serving sizes are typically between 1 and 3 grams, depending on the recipe.) After you moisten, steep, or soak your seaweed in water according to package or recipe directions, it’s easy to use, and it retains its nutritional value even when cooked. Here’s a quick look at how the various seaweeds add up.