Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
8 Jul

A Visual Guide to Sea Vegetables

seaweedsaladAbout 160,000 years ago the human diet expanded to include seafood. Early humans became coastal dwellers at least that long ago, and ever since then we’ve been inextricably linked to the sea. The sea contains our most reliable source (when we aren’t dining on the brains of ruminants) of the all-important, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. And then there’s the edible sea vegetation. I’ve written briefly about it before, but edible seaweed seems to be lacking from most folks’ diets, even those eating an otherwise complete Primal diet. For those in Western countries, the only seaweed they’ll happen across on a regular basis comes stuffed with rice and raw fish. It’s not a modern staple, unless you’re in Asia, and it simply isn’t on most people’s radars. It should be, though.

Pretty much every culture with coastal access throughout history made culinary use of sea vegetation. The Japanese and other Asian countries are famous for their seaweed consumption, but even the Vikings and Celts would chew on dried dulse for sustenance (and the red algae even figures into some of the old Norse epic sagas). Hawaiians and Polynesians cultivated kelp farms. Plato famously opined the “sea cures all evils,” and the ancient Greeks regularly ate edible seaweed. Any food with such a wide-ranging history of use across various cultures and time periods piques my interest.

The sea is an especially potent source of minerals. It’s an entirely different story with soil, which most experts agree is being rapidly depleted of mineral content by intensive over farming. And since the plants we eat are only as mineral-rich as the soil in which they grow, most commercial vegetation that ends up on our plates isn’t nearly as nutritious as the stuff your grandparents ate, let alone what Grok ate. Buying from smaller farms can mitigate the deficiencies to a certain extent, since those guys are generally more mindful of soil quality and replenishment (rather than just trying to produce the biggest, most durable fruits and vegetables in the shortest amount of time, nutrition and taste be damned), but incorporating sea vegetables into your diet is an affordable, delicious, surefire way to obtain missing mineral content.

Whereas terrestrial vegetables are limited to what they can obtain from the soil, sea vegetables spend their entire lives luxuriating in the world’s largest, oldest, most complete mineral bath. They soak it up and are among the richest sources of iodine, magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, manganese, and all other (56 of ‘em in total) minerals essential to the human body. Getting precise numbers for the mineral content of each variety, though, is difficult, because it varies based on location, water temperature, water depth, climate, and season. Rest assured, though, that these things are extremely nutritious, however variable the specifics may be.

There are dozens upon dozens of edible seaweed varieties, so variety should never be an issue. You could conceivably wade out into the shallows of your local coastline, grab a fistful of slimy, slippery vegetation, and consume it without any ill effects. In fact, the only poisonous seaweed I’m aware of is a filamentous, blue-green algae called lyngbya majuscula, or fireweed. Here’s a picture so you know what to avoid. Otherwise, go crazy. Go wild. Try ‘em all. Wild, fresh, dried, or even noodled. Here are a few of the more popular varieties:

Kelp

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Kelp is the most readily available type of edible seaweed. In Asian countries, kombu and wakame are popular forms of edible kelp. You’ll generally find kelp in its dried form; soaking it for several minutes makes it pliable and edible, or you can add it directly to soups for extract the nutrients. Kelp also comes in granulated form, to be used in place of salt or as a mineral supplement to your food. A quarter teaspoon of this brand gives you plenty of iodine (over 2000% of the RDA), so if you’re looking to add more iodine to your diet, this is a fantastic way. If you’re looking to reduce your intake, you might try other seaweeds.

Kombu

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Kombu is a type of kelp, a brown algae most commonly eaten in Japan. It comes dried, for soup or broth, or fresh, to be eaten as sashimi.

Add a five inch strip to a pot of water with a bit of salt and pepper for a simple, mineral-rich broth, or incorporate a few more ingredients and make Aaron Blaisdell’s Kombu Egg Soup. Be sure to eat the chewy kombu after.

Wakame

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Wakame is another popular one in Japan and Korea, where restaurants will often serve fresh (or reconstituted) wakame tossed with a bit of sesame oil over a bed of lettuce. I highly recommend trying this out – the chewy robustness of the seaweed holds up well against the delicate lettuce.

Wakame often appears in miso soups or simple broths, floating on the top in thin strips. It has about the same nutrient composition as kombu and other kelps (iodine, magnesium, calcium, etc).



Arame

2105343372 9d0ff03b7eArame is brown Japanese kelp used primarily in Japan, China, and Korea, but Peruvian and Indonesian cuisine employs it as well. It has a sweet, mild flavor, making it a great sea vegetable for beginners. Try sautéing soaked, drained arame with winter squash, onions, butter, and a bit of chili pepper for a great side dish for grilled meat or fish. Soak dried arame for five minutes before using (unless it’s going right into a soup). A tablespoon of dried arame will give you 0.7 mg of iodine.

Dulse

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Dulse is a red seaweed that attaches itself to rocks in the North Atlantic and Northwest Pacific oceans. It’s often shredded, dried, and sprinkled on soups, but fresh dulse can be sautéed with butter and garlic, or rubbed with olive oil and salt and roasted in the oven to make chips. I’ve even eaten handfuls straight out of the bag, treating it like edible Big League Chew that won’t destroy your tooth enamel. It has less iodine (by most accounts, about 1/5 of the amount) than kombu, with high amounts of magnesium and calcium. Dulse also comes in shakable flakes, similar to granulated kelp.

Nori

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Anyone who’s eaten sushi knows nori. It’s the mildest form of seaweed , generally coming roasted in sheets or squares. Compared to other sea vegetables, it’s also fairly low in minerals and other nutrients, but that just means you can eat even more of it. Try wrapping up gobs of tuna salad (tossed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, sprinkled with kelp granules, perhaps) with your nori squares for a quick, healthy snack, or just eat them plain.

Irish Moss

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Also known as carrageen moss (yes, as in carageenan, the common thickening agent that makes up about 55% of Irish moss’ bulk), Irish moss grows along the rocky Atlantic coasts of Europe and North America. It’s also about 15% mineral and 10% protein, and it softens into a jelly-like substance when heated in liquid. Folks in the Caribbean boil Irish moss until it’s jelly, add flavoring like vanilla or cinnamon, and top it off with rum and milk. The concoction is supposed to fight impotence and confer aphrodisiac qualities. The Irish and Scottish boil the stuff to make a tapioca-like pudding dessert. It might be interesting to play with some Primal seaweed pudding recipes, which could be incredibly nutritious (Irish moss is high in iodine, magnesium, calcium, manganese, zinc, bromine, and other minerals) if you avoid sugar. Anyone game?

Alaria Esculenta

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Sometimes called dabberlocks, badderlocks, or winged kelp, alaria esculenta is a traditional sea vegetable found in the far north Atlantic Ocean. Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, and Ireland all count it among their traditional foods. It’s a brown seaweed with a large central rib, from which wavy membranes shoot out on either side. Alaria was traditionally dried, then added to soups and stews. A big strip of it goes well in a pot of chili and increases the mineral content considerably.

I understand that some people just don’t dig the flavor of sea vegetables, and that’s fine. Soups and broths are excellent ways to extract the bulk of the useful minerals and nutrients from sea vegetables; eating the stuff itself is entirely optional (although probably optimal). Still, give it a try. For my money, the texture of sea vegetables is unrivaled and incredibly unique.

One thing to keep in mind is that sea vegetables have historically been used as garnishes, flavorants, stock bases, and side dishes. You won’t see heaping piles of kelp replacing spinach or lettuce in salads in Japanese households, for example. Because they’re so incredibly nutrient-and-mineral-dense, sea vegetables can be eaten to excess. Our iodine RDA of 150 micrograms is low. The Japanese typically get upwards of 5-10 mg iodine daily without ill effects (in fact, their traditional health and longevity is rather excellent), but iodine toxicity does exist. Think of sea vegetables as a supplement, albeit a supplement to be used on a regular basis.

Warnings about heavy metal or pollutant toxicity due to consumption of sea vegetables are understandable. If sea vegetables soak up all the beneficial compounds floating around our oceans, it seems plausible that they’d also absorb the bad stuff – mercury, arsenic, lead, etc. Most studies have shown that heavy metal toxicity via seaweed consumption just doesn’t really happen. Only one type, called hijiki, has consistently been shown to possess levels of heavy metals, especially arsenic, that approach toxicity. Avoid hijiki and you should be okay.

I wish I could give accurate, precise figures for mineral and nutrient content of sea vegetables, but I can’t in good conscience. To me, though, that adds a bit of excitement to eating. You know it’s sustained multiple cultures over multiple time periods, and you know it contains the full range of essential minerals – you just do not have the hard numbers in front of you. Well, neither did Grok, nor the Vikings, nor the Pacific Islanders, nor the chronic disease-free Japanese villagers munching on this stuff on a daily basis. It was just there and it was edible and apparently nourishing. I’ll for one continue to get some of my veggies from the sea.

chrishoward.author, FotoosVanRobin, digiyesica, Akuppa, preetamrai, Airstream Life, Travis S. Flickr Photos

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. Sea vegetables are one of my true loves. They add such excitement to the plate and I love that rich umami flavor. We add a lot of sea vegetables to soup and even my four year-old son begs to snack on nori. We make dulse soup a lot and like to serve shellfish over a bed of wakame seasoned with a touch of sesame oil. It’s nice to have a guide to them all together in one place.

    Jenny wrote on July 8th, 2010
  2. Thanks for the informative post on the much neglected sea vegetables! I use the kelp noodles about once a week for a spaghetti alternative that even the kids will enjoy. Try the version with green-tea added. Kombu and Dulse are mainstays in my kitchen, as are the kelp granules to which you linked. Whole Foods near me sells that brand.

    Aaron Blaisdell wrote on July 8th, 2010
  3. Yes!
    This is the nudge to my good friend (also the only other primal person in my area of florida) about all the seafood goodies in primal eating.
    Aside from that, would sushi really be all that bad with some rice? It’s the only grain I eat on occasion but also the only omega 3s with salmon, and other fish such as yellowtail and other types of tuna and seaweed inside a thin layer of rice.
    Any comments?
    Great post Mark! one of my favorites

    Oneil wrote on July 8th, 2010
  4. Thanks for the hijiki warning! I usually research what I eat fairly well but every time I blindly assume something is good for you…

    Has anyone tried the kelp noodles?

    Wakka wrote on July 8th, 2010
    • I have – they’re good stuff. I love the texture of them. I haven’t tried them as a replacement for pasta in Italian dishes though I have used them as such in Chinese style dishes.

      Jamie Fellrath wrote on July 8th, 2010
      • I will definitely pick some up. They sound like a big improvement over my last “noodle” which was that shiratake garbage I tried years ago.

        Wakka wrote on July 8th, 2010
  5. Where do you find this stuff?

    Layla wrote on July 8th, 2010
    • Most health food stores will sell them in the dried form.

      Sebastien wrote on July 9th, 2010
  6. You’re right, some of us who’ve been eating primally don’t have this in mind lol. I’ve never tried any of them but will add to the shopping list. Interesting post as always Mark & thanks for giving us the heads up on the ones to avoid as well :) It would be nice if some posted recipe ideas for us ;)

    Madeline wrote on July 8th, 2010
  7. There are also some very good supplements that include sea vegetables. The one I use, Body Balance from Life Force International, has Sea Lettuce, Irish Moss, Bladder wrack, Kombu, Dabber locks, Norwegian Kelp, Gigartina Chamissoi, Dulse, Nori, and some Aloe Vera for good measure. It’s a drink, so it’s much more easily absorbed than a pill supplement, and it’s a whole food product as well.

    I’ll vouch for the effectiveness of sea veggies any day of the week, and twice on Sundays.

    Jamie Fellrath wrote on July 8th, 2010
  8. Does anyone know if sea vegetables are being overfarmed? Like, will it deplete the ocean of nutrients just like we depleted soil?

    Kara wrote on July 8th, 2010
    • Some seaweeds can grow a half a meter a day. That said, the Sea Palm is a threatened species and is considered protected along the West Coast of the United States. In California, “recreational harvesting” is illegal. Sea Palm can be easily identified. They are the only species that spend most of the reproductive part of their lives standing upright out of the water–and thus look like little palm trees anchored to the rocks in the upper-tidal zone.

      Regarding your question about ever depleting the ocean of minerals. No, as long as water runs down hill. In one form or another our wastes end up in the ocean. In fact the oceans are probably richer in minerals since we’ve mined/eroded them from our soils and farmland.

      chipin wrote on February 12th, 2011
  9. Health food stores, and grocery stores
    great post mark!

    frank wrote on July 8th, 2010
  10. I am always willing to try new things. The only time I have enjoyed a sea veggie was when I had a suhshi roll for the first time 3 weeks ago in Chicago. I enjoyed it and would love to try more sea veggies. Talk about an easy way to get all your minerals!

    Thanks Mark for this awesome guide!

    Primal Toad wrote on July 8th, 2010
  11. O Mozuku (8.7 http://www.fao.org/docrep/006/y4765e/y4765e0b.htm) my delightfully vinegared Okinawan import, how I love thee with breakfast every morn.

    Really, if I could find a brand that reliably didn’t include a tiny bit of sugar, it’d be the perfect complement to my morning natto and yummy, fatty omelet; I indulge regardless.

    Living in Japan does have some benefits — reasonable and varied sea derived edible items being one :D

    Faumdano wrote on July 8th, 2010
  12. wakame is where it’s at.

    i put 15 dried gms into a broth once a week. tasty.

    shel wrote on July 8th, 2010
  13. If you live in the Northeast US, or I guess anywhere in the US, there’s a great website I buy my seaweed from: http://www.theseaweedman.com/

    I’ve gotten a few orders from him and it is delicious. I also eat dulse by the handful with my eggs at breakfast!

    Alec wrote on July 8th, 2010
  14. Wow so many things I just can’t wait to try! Ha! I have trouble with the seaweed on my sushi rolls! I’ve also heard lately that dulse is an interesting choice. I guess I will have to run out an pick some up!

    Susan Campbell wrote on July 8th, 2010
    • Try drying dulse in the toaster oven for 5 minutes. It brings out a nice bacon flavor. In fact, wrap it in bacon!

      Aaron Blaisdell wrote on July 8th, 2010
      • that will definately bring out the bacon flavor. LOL

        Ivan Waters wrote on July 9th, 2010
  15. Super excited to try some of these broths! Side note: I had the Tamari eggs for lunch today with some sliced avocado…SOOOOOO good! If you have not bought the Primal Cookbook yet you really need to :)

    Daisy wrote on July 8th, 2010
  16. I’ve had seaweed salad (wakame) at sushi restaurants, but while it’s great tasting, there’s definately some soft of sweetner added.

    Avoiding sugars/syrups, is it easy to find organic, fresh seaweeds in grocery stores?

    Alex wrote on July 8th, 2010
    • You are right that most seaweed salads sold in grocery stores and served in restaurants, including those owned by Asians, are made not only with sweeteners but also food coloring and preservatives. The bright yellowish green coloring of the seaweed in the first photo is not natural. If you want healthy seaweed, you’ll have to prepare it yourself. It’s not hard to soak seaweed and then flavor it with a little homemade dressing.

      And BEWARE of seasoned laver/nori as it often contains MSG. This is especially true of the shredded variety made by Korean food companies.

      Sonagi wrote on July 9th, 2010
  17. Does anyone grow their own seaweed in a tank at home? Is this possible?

    Steve wrote on July 8th, 2010
  18. I love wakame, I get it every time we go for sushi. I never knew what it was called though.
    I am very intrigued by kelp noodles & would love to try them. Can you get them at stores anywhere?

    Ely wrote on July 8th, 2010
  19. Great post. I love trying new things!

    Carla wrote on July 8th, 2010
  20. raw vegans use irish moss in their desserts a lot, usually blended with cashews and dates or agave. sub agave with stevia, and you’re good to go!

    http://www.rawfoodtalk.com/showthread.php?t=57979

    http://theppk.com/blog/2009/05/05/raw-strawberry-cheesecake/

    mandy wrote on July 8th, 2010
  21. Nori and Wakame are my personal favorite. Watch out for some pre-packaged Nori sheets as they sometimes contain MSG.

    Janet wrote on July 8th, 2010
  22. I’ve always wondered how big a role seafood (both animal and plant) have played in the evolution of the human diet.

    I mean, our ancestors crawled out of the ocean all those years ago, so it would make sense if we never lost the ability to thrive on seafood (a la the Inuit) and why sea salt is so much better than Morton’s!

    One interesting theory is “the aquatic ape hypothesis,” that modern humans actually evolved near the coasts and spent plenty of time in the ocean. Not a lot of people buy into it, but who knows?

    Mark, how about a post like this on fungi?

    Darrin wrote on July 8th, 2010
  23. I’ve only ever seen kelp noodles at Whole Foods, in the refrigerated pasta section. My local health store definitely doesn’t carry them. Dulse is often available in a shaker, or pre-flaked, and it’s great to sprinkle on a salad – makes it a little salty and extra flavorful. Good stuff!

    Julie wrote on July 8th, 2010
  24. Thanks for the reminder to eat seaweed. I have various types in my pantry but only seem to remember to add the dulse flakes to my morning eggs. I need to remember to add the others to my stocks and soups.

    My most accommodating grocer in our small town stocked flaked dulse for me but I see that no one else is buying it. I may have to buy all those bags myself….

    Sharon wrote on July 8th, 2010
  25. What about sea beans?

    Lori wrote on July 8th, 2010
  26. What a great post! The Wakame seaweed I found several months ago in my local grocery store’s seafood deli section. It’s so good, but I didn’t realize how good it was for me. I also get nori seaweed snacks that come in individual packs from the Asian grocery store. Thanks for posting this, because I like the reassurance that one of my favorite snacks is Primal, too!

    SherryB123 wrote on July 8th, 2010
  27. With my wife being Korean, I have eaten the non-animal bounty of the sea for over 28 years. Seaweed is simply delicious!

    Tim Malloroy wrote on July 8th, 2010
  28. BTW, not to say I don’t partake of the animal bounty of the sea. I do.

    Tim Malloroy wrote on July 8th, 2010
  29. a very nice salad could be had with wakame and dulse…!

    rik wrote on July 8th, 2010
  30. If you are on the west coast check out Ranch 99. They have an entire isle of dried seaweed, as well as many other things most people of a western background have never tried. Check out the veggies and meat and seafood, as well, they carry many items never sold at a safeway or whole foods. No I don’t own stock, just a big fan of variety in healthy food options.

    em wrote on July 8th, 2010
  31. the japanese restaurant up the road from me makes a killer sesame seaweed salad.
    its starts with a bed for shredded cabbage, wakami on top of that, then sliced avocado and fish eggs on top of the wakami. it is so so good!!!

    earthspirit wrote on July 8th, 2010
    • woops i mean wakame.

      earthspirit wrote on July 8th, 2010
  32. I really need to try more kinds of seaweed! Thanks for the very informative post–hopefully this will give me the courage to try and cook something with a different seaweed than nori! :)

    Ika wrote on July 8th, 2010
  33. Umibudo (sea grape) is also a great sea delicacy which is in the seaweed family .. very popular in Okinawa

    Jamie@CFA wrote on July 8th, 2010
  34. Great post Mark. I love seaweed salads. Mineral balance is a much under rated issue for most westerners. Iodine for example is not only important for prevention neurological disorders and hormonal balance via thyroid gland, but is also implicated in the prevention ob many cancers. The current RDI is totally inadequate at 125mcg whereas The japanese have an average of about 1200 – 1300mcg per day – mostly from sea vegies. get em in to you! YUM

    Ivan Waters wrote on July 9th, 2010
  35. As a child in Hawai’i, Mom and I used to pick bright green seaweed (limu) and have it on our salads with avocado and soy sauce. When I lived in Japan, I’d often make an awesome fresh wakame and spinach omelette as a quick dinner or a weekend brunch, sometimes with a bit of cheese. I LOVE sea veggies.

    Dawn wrote on July 9th, 2010
  36. nice post. Great info!

    JP@PrimalJournal wrote on July 9th, 2010
  37. Brilliant post here Mark – I’ve always wanted to learn more about what the sea can offer our diets. I’ve had Sea Kelp in tablet form but as always would prefer to eat the true, natural source!

    Luke M-Davies wrote on July 9th, 2010
  38. a couple of these types i can pretty much walk to and pick up at the beach. it would be from an area where quahogs, clams and fish are eaten, so i presume the water is ok. my only concern is the one i have for mushrooms — that being, are there any similar looking seaweeds that are poisonous? i’ve never had the courage to pick wild mushrooms, but seaweed is always washing up, floating off the shore and attached to the rocks.

    jeff wrote on July 9th, 2010
  39. Just a comment about the iodine and toxicity. Iodine can flush out heavy metals like lead, cadmium,arsenic and mercury out of the tissues and leave the burden on the kidneys and liver to eliminate. This most likely is where the negative effects of high iodine intake comes from. These metals along with chlorine, fluorine and bromine are released from the tissues and are all toxic to the thyroid and body. People with low iodine levels will also store more of these toxic halides. Seaweed on the other hand has substances that bind to heavy metals and offset the toxicity of releasing these heavy metals via the iodine. I can’t say that hijiki’s high arsenic content is neutralized by the seaweed’s sodium alginate, but it does bind up and remove heavy metals. People with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (most common hypothyroid) will benefit, but be more sensitive to iodine. (They will also improve greatly by going gluten-free.)

    Will Mitchell wrote on July 9th, 2010

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