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When most of us read the words “plant-based diet,” we tend to think of foods such as kale salads and grain bowls or trendy meat replacements. But there is one nonmeat option that’s gaining traction as the newest superfood: seaweed.
Seaweed – yes, the brownish-green ribbons and bundles of oceanic plantlike matter that wash up on beaches – is in fact edible. Nori, the papery sheets used to wrap sushi rolls and as a ramen bowl garnish, is likely the most well-known and enjoyed seaweed, but these large, leafy algae come in hundreds of colorful varieties, including wakame, kombu, red dulse and sugar kelp.
Seaweed helps to support other marine life and to clean the water surrounding it. When out of the water, it can bring more nutrition and minerals to our diets.
“Even though we try to eat healthy, we’re relying on land-based, soil-based agriculture for the most part,” said Sarah Redmond, founder and owner of Springtide Seaweed in Gouldsboro, Maine. “Seaweed is a really interesting alternative because it provides those nutrients that are really hard to find in other land plants.”
With several companies bringing seaweed-based foods to the market, it’s getting easier than ever to taste the sea. Here’s why we all can benefit from seaweed.
Good for humans and the environment
For humans, seaweed is a one-stop shop for our crucial nutrient needs. “Seaweed is an excellent source of dietary fiber and minerals,” said Mary Ellen Camire, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine.
Though nutritional profiles vary slightly between green, brown and red varieties, across the board seaweed contains a number of vitamins, including B, C, E and K, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, amino acids, polyphenols and 10 times more minerals than land-based plants, according to a recent study. These essential minerals include iron, calcium and iodine.
“Seaweeds have this ability to concentrate all the trace minerals in the ocean that we cannot access,” Redmond said. “They are sort of this balancing food that we can return some of those trace elements back into our bodies and into our diets.”
And when used as a fertilizer for land-based farming, seaweed can add those essential nutrients back into the soil, improving its health.
However, you don’t need to pile your plate high with seaweed because it can absorb high amounts of minerals. “Some brown kelps, such as the sugar kelp grown in New England, are very high in iodine,” Camire said. “They have so much iodine that consumers are advised to eat it no more than three times per week.”
Since the concentration of specific nutrients in seaweed can interact with various medications, check with your doctor if you have a thyroid condition or take blood thinners before going all in.
Seaweed is just as beneficial to water systems as it is to our personal health. Carbon capture might be the buzzword of the moment in the fight to mitigate the climate crisis, but seaweed has been doing it naturally all this time. “Seaweed pulls carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and uses it to make more carbohydrates,” Camire said. “We are not sure how much seaweed farming it would take to have a significant effect on global warming, but it helps.”
Seaweed also works as a component of regenerative aquaculture by consuming nitrogen and phosphorus, two elements that can harm the ocean when found in large quantities. “Seaweed also provides a place for smaller sea creatures to hide from predators,” establishing refuge environments that can help restore diverse marine life in overfished habitats, Camire said.
Even better: Seaweed requires no fertilizer or pesticides to grow in the ocean, whether it’s farmed there or harvested wild.
How to add seaweed to your everyday meals
OK, now you may be convinced that seaweed is worth sampling. But there’s no need to forage for it – not that you’d want to. Make sure the seaweed products you’re getting are certified organic or tested for heavy metal content, Camire said, because “some types of seaweed are more likely to have heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and arsenic.”
Other than eating lots of temaki rolls and packaged seaweed snacks or adding more nori sheets to your ramen, there are several ways to incorporate edible seaweed into your meal routine.
Springtide Seaweed air-dries kelp and mills it into powder for seasonings such as Italian kelp and Red Bay seasoning, which can be sprinkled on everything from popcorn to garlic bread. Add dried kelp ribbons to soups, stews or any dish where you’d sauté kale and other leafy greens. “We try to put seaweed in a form that’s easy for people to use and incorporate into their diet,” Redmond said.
Want your kelp for breakfast? Atlantic Sea Farms, another Maine seaweed producer, incorporates kelp into frozen smoothie cubes alongside antioxidant-rich fruits such as cranberries and blueberries. If you’re feeling spicy, try some of their kelp-based kimchi. To turn up the heat, add some kelp hot sauce from Alaska’s Barnacle Foods.
Or if you prefer your seaweed on the grill, Akua makes kelp burgers and ground kelp, which can be transformed into meatballs, used in tacos or anywhere else ground meat usually makes an appearance on the menu.
You can even have seaweed that satisfies a sweet tooth in the form of kelp chocolate bars (plain or with potato chips) or by making your own chocolate chip cookies that sneak powdered kelp into the mix.
Casey Barber is a food writer, artist and editor of the website Good. Food. Stories.