Fish is on just about everyone’s list of the healthiest foods. But you may not know that the ocean is also home to another so-called superfood: seaweed.
Yes, the anti-aging and weight loss benefits of seaweed are being promoted by a number of experts, including Dr. Mehmet Oz and Oprah Winfrey’s trainer Bob Greene in his book, 20 Years Younger, and different varieties of the saltwater plant are available in a growing number of products, including crackers and papery thin, crispy snacks. But most folks who’ve eaten seaweed have either experienced wakame, the delicate green leaf you’ll find floating in the brothy miso soup typically served at Japanese restaurants, or nori, the chewy black wrapper around sushi.
All seaweeds are good sources of lots of nutrients, including calcium, iron, potassium, zinc, iodine, vitamins A, B complex, C, D, E, K and trace minerals. “A lot of those nutrients, especially minerals, aren’t found in such high concentration and variety in land vegetables, so it can be very beneficial to obtain them in seaweed form,” says Wendy Esko, marketing researcher with Eden Foods and a natural foods expert with a special interest in sea vegetables.
A claim that eating seaweed can help you lose weight does have some merit. A gummy fiber, called alginate, found in brown seaweeds such as kombu, arame, hiziki and wakame, can help you to feel full so you eat less; it also interferes with fat absorption in the intestines, and helps to keep blood sugar stable.
Research has shown that people who drank an alginate-containing diet shake prior to meals for three months lost more weight than those having the same shake but without alginate. (Other types of soluble fiber have similar effects.)
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Another component of some seaweeds, fucoidan, a sugar-sulfur complex, acts as an antioxidant and can enhance the immune system and improve cellular health, Esko says.
There is one downside: Because seaweed is a rich source of iodine, a nutrient needed by the thyroid gland to produce metabolism-regulating hormone, it could cause problems if you overdo it. A study found that Japanese women who ate seaweed every day were almost twice as likely to develop thyroid cancer as women who ate it only a few times a week.
That said, if you want to add seaweed to your diet, try mild wakame in miso soup, or a cucumber and wakame salad with rice wine vinegar and ginger dressing, Esko suggests. Or try wakame, nori or dulse flakes added to soups or as a condiment on vegetables or rice. Although seaweed flakes contain some sodium, it is a fraction of that found in table salt, making it a great salt-substitute, Esko says. Two other seaweeds, hiziki and arame, are also easy to use. Simply simmer in water until soft and add to vegetable or rice dishes.
Seaweed can be found dried, in packages, in health foods stores, which carry the best-quality products, and in Asian markets. If you’re buying a seaweed powder, crackers, or instant broth, be sure to check the label for added MSG or excess sodium.