It's good for our bodies and great for the planet.
Seaweed. You've eaten it wrapped around a rice-packed sushi roll or floating in a bowl of salty miso soup, but other than that, it's a fair bet that seaweed is not a staple in your diet. For most Westerners it is not, despite the fact that seaweed has long been valued in Japan, where it makes up 10 percent of the national diet. We North Americans are only just starting to pay attention to seaweed's impressive health properties, labeling it as a 'superfood' in an enthusiastic effort to incorporate more of it into our meals.
And for good reason. It is an amazing food packed with minerals and vitamins, specifically iodine (crucial for thyroid function), iron, vitamin C, vitamins K and B12, soluble and insoluble fibre, and protein. Researchers say it is good for digestive health, acting as a 'prebiotic' (food for your gut microflora) and increasing the number of good bacteria in the gut.
"Scientists at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne have researched alginate, a substance in brown seaweed, and found that it can strengthen gut mucus (which protects the gut wall), slow down digestion (so you feel fuller for longer) and make food release its energy more slowly (ie, it is low-GI, and therefore good)." (via the Guardian)
Seaweed is good at detoxifying the body, flushing out cadmium and lead, which are found in cigarette smoke. It is thought to help regulate hormones, lower risk of heart disease, improve female fertility and regular PMS symptoms, and even to combat breast cancer. Superfood, indeed!
But, as usual here at TreeHugger, we're just as interested in the environmental impact of a product as its purported health benefits, and in seaweed's case it ticks all the boxes. Not only is it good for your body, but it's great for the planet too. There is plenty of it available and it does not require fresh water or fertilizer to grow, freeing up limited fertile land for other crops. Seaweed grows 30-60 times faster than land vegetables, sucks carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and counteracts ocean acidification.
From an article in the Huffington Post called "Seaweed: The Superfood That Could Help Fight Climate Change," Simon Thibault quotes Thierry Chopin, a professor of marine biology and director of the Seaweed and Integrated Multi-Trophic Aquaculture Research Laboratory at the University of New Brunswick.
"As well as absorbing carbon, says Chopin, seaweed helps recycle excess nitrogen and phosphorus from fish feces that otherwise cause water pollution. He sees seaweed as an anchor in fostering balance ― economically as well as environmentally."
So why aren't we all eating seaweed on a regular basis? There are a few roadblocks. First is taste. For people who have not grown up noshing on dried dulse, it may seem less than mouthwatering. In the words of oyster farmer Tamar Haspel, the taste of seaweed is "a bit of a hurdle. Seaweed is, unfortunately, not delicious." Haspel worries that if Americans are unable to eat enough land-grown vegetables, they'll hardly be inclined to embrace sea-grown ones.
She also blames North America's slow embrace of seaweed on a supply chain problem. For landlocked inhabitants who want something more than just dried sheets of nori for wrapping sushi, it's not easy to get. Thibault writes, "[Haspel] argues that the onus may have to fall on big food companies to supply consumers with packaged products ― with better nutritional profiles ― to get them into it." Or at the very least, supermarkets that are willing to stock products developed by smaller food businesses located along the coasts. Considering seaweed's long shelf life, it's a fairly safe investment for store owners to make.
In the meantime, if you can get your hands on some seaweed, there are lots of delicious ways to use it. Try making Bitter Greens and Avocado Salad with Seaweed, Seaweed Tartare, Seaweed Tempura, and Seaweed Butter.