The ocean has always served as a source for some of the most diverse and nutrient rich food items. In many cultures, the entire diet is made up of foods taken from the ocean. And one of the most interesting forms of food from the ocean is seaweed.
While seaweed is most commonly eaten with sushi or in certain soups, there are so many amazing and varied dishes that can be made from the plant. And, just as the dish options for seaweed vary, so do the types and benefits of seaweed.
Not only is seaweed a delicious food, but eating it regularly can provide many health benefits. The key to truly appreciating the plant is in knowing its many varieties and uses.
What is Seaweed?
When most people think of seaweed, they think of the dark green plant that is used in the making of sushi. However, the term seaweed is actually very general, referring to numerous algae that grow in bodies of water, like oceans, lakes, and even rivers.
These plants and algae that are more commonly known as seaweed can differ in size, from microscopic phytoplankton to giant kelp trees that grow like forests in even the deepest waters. Despite the varying types and sizes of seaweed, the one thing that remains the same with most of these forms of algae is that they are all extremely nutritious.
Phytoplankton, the smallest version of seaweed, provides the food chain base for the majority of marine life. And all other seaweeds work in very much the same way, providing nutrition for the smallest fishes to the biggest sea mammals.
Seaweed is known for being very high in vitamins and minerals, as well as being an excellent source of fiber. Because of how nutrient rich seaweed is, it’s not at all surprising that it has become such a popular food source for people across the world.
The Different Types of Seaweed
As mentioned above, there are many different types of seaweed. In fact, some experts believe that there are countless numbers of the algae. However, in order to make studying and understand the plants a little easier, four general categories for seaweed have been formed. It should be noted that these categories do not include sea grasses, which is another category of its own.
The first type of seaweed is called green algae. Considered the most diverse category of seaweed, green algae includes species like sea grapes and sea lettuce, also known as ulva. Often, green algae grow in large groups, or colonies, spreading across vast spaces.
Green algae work very much like plants on land, containing two forms of chlorophyll and still using light for energy, which means it is often found in shallower areas in the ocean.
Considered the largest and most complex form of algae, brown algae is often found attached to a holdfast, or a stationary structure where it can get support. Kelp, a type of brown algae, is considered one of the largest seaweeds and often grows extremely fast, sometimes up to two feet a day.
Another type of brown algae, and one of the most popular in the culinary world, is wakame, which is used in miso soup. An interesting fact about brown algae is that often they contain air pockets, or air bladders, which help them float to the surface to get more sunlight.
Blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, are closer to bacteria in form than plants, unlike the other categories of seaweed. However, because blue-green algae often form in colonies, like green algae, they can be seen by the human eye, despite their small size.
Since this category of seaweed is so small and compact, it is extremely dense in nutrients, causing many blue-green algae to be categorized as superfoods.
Some of these superfoods are used by people quite frequently, without them even realizing that they’re eating a category of seaweed. Two examples of superfood blue-green algae are spirulina and chlorella.
Finally, the last and most popular form of seaweed is red algae. Nori, a type of red algae, is the seaweed that is used in the preparation of sushi. Also known as Rhodophyta, these algae get their color from phycoerythrin and phycocyanin, two brightly colored pigments.
Found in depths of up to 250 meters, red algae has about 6,500 different species, many of which can be eaten in the same way as Nori.
Seaweed Health Benefits
As mentioned above, there are many health benefits that come with eating seaweed on a regular basis. The first of these benefits is found in the nutrient density of seaweed. With high levels of calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc, seaweed is often much more nutritious than plants grown on land.
Seaweed is most well-known, however, for being a rich source of iodine, which is important for those who don’t eat enough fish or dairy.
In addition to being an amazing source for minerals and vitamins, seaweed is unique in that it actually contains two omega-3 fatty acids. Plants grown on land do not contain the omega-3 fatty acids needed for a healthy body.
However, those who eat seaweed have a natural source for two vital fatty acids, DHA and EPA, which are often missing from the diets of vegetarians and vegans.
Most people know that certain bacteria are extremely good for the digestive process. There needs to be a perfect balance between the good and bad bacteria that exists in the gut in order for the digestive system to thrive. However, because these levels are so precise, imbalance is very common.
Another benefit of seaweed is that it works as an amazing prebiotic, providing a food source to the healthy bacteria that already exist in the stomach. And because these good bacteria enter the body as fiber, the amount of digestive support seaweed and provide eaters is immeasurable.
Finally, there are other smaller, but just as important, ways that seaweed works to promote overall health and wellness of eaters. For example, seaweed is a powerful antioxidant, fighting free radical damage in the body.
Studies have found that this could help prevent chronic diseases, like cancer, and aid in maintaining better health for users. And, of course, these are just the benefits of seaweed in general. Each category of seaweed will have its own benefits.
Seaweed and Diatomaceous Earth
Over the past several years, the importance of diatomaceous earth has become an increasingly popular topic of discussion. Also referred to as silica or DE, diatomaceous earth is a white powder that has been found to offer users a wide range of benefits. The benefits of DE shouldn’t be a surprise, however, since the mineral is made partly from seaweed.
DE is a sedimentary rock that forms when unicellular algae, a very specific type of seaweed, bonds with the surface of the earth. Over time, and as a result of extreme pressure, the algae and rock combine, creating a chalk-like rock that can be ground into a powder called diatomaceous earth. It’s in this process that seaweed helps promote health and wellness in a new form.
Studies over the past several years have found a wide range of benefits tied to DE in many different industries, from cosmetics and food to agriculture and health. One of the biggest benefits of DE is that it works to detoxify the body, killing viruses and cleaning the blood.
With high levels of silica, DE is one of the most powerful antioxidants on earth, reversing and preventing damage to the body. In fact, the purifying aspect of DE is also used to clean water, allowing dangerous water to be transformed into drinking water.
The nutrient rich DE doesn’t just cleanse the body, it is also able to provide the body with everything it needs to stay strong and healthy. For example, DE contains calcium, magnesium, iron, sodium, and silicon, as well as other rare trace minerals.
All these nutrients work together to support the health of the heart, lowering cholesterol levels and even repairing and strengthening bones and muscles. As a result, DE has been found to improve the appearance of skin as well the strength of nails, teeth, and hair.
While seaweed in its most natural form is able to provide a wide range of benefits, when it transforms into DE it is able to find another life, offering users concentrated benefits for their health and wellness.
Adding Seaweed to a Diet
Another thing that makes seaweed so great is how many different ways there are to add it into a daily diet. While fresh seaweed can be used in dishes, the algae most commonly comes dried. By coming in a dried form, seaweed is even easier to incorporate into a wide range of dishes.
Of course, the most popular way to eat seaweed is as sushi. This can be purchased at restaurants and stores or made fresh at home. It’s important to make sure all parts of the sushi are prepared properly if it’s being made at home.
Dried seaweed, which often comes in sheets, also makes a delicious snack, providing a salty, crunchy, and somewhat healthy way to curb hunger during the day.
Miso soup is well-known for containing pieces of seaweed. However, for those who want more of this amazing plant in their soup, there are soups that require only a broth and the seaweed. Dried seaweed can also be mixed into a Japanese salad or sprinkled over other foods.
Seaweed Health Benefits Summary
For those who don’t want a strong taste of seaweed with their foods, sprinkling it over rice, salad, or vegetables is a simple way to get the benefits without the overwhelming flavor.