When it comes to superfoods, we typically think of ingredients that have epic nutritional benefits. Vitamin-packed kale. Protein-powered quinoa. Immune-boosting goji berries. But what if there was a food that was as powerful on your plate as it was for the planet? Meet seaweed.
History and Benefits
You may be most familiar with the ocean plant rolled around your sushi, floating in your miso soup, maybe even tossed in a salad. Of course, seaweed is not a new food trend. A longtime staple in many East-Asian diets, particularly Japanese, for hundreds of years, seaweed has been loved for its variety, versatility, and its high nutrient content. But over the years, Western appetites have been craving more of this ocean plant—and for excellent reasons.
Seaweed supplies iodine, which plays a role in thyroid function. While seaweed has protein levels equal (by weight) to that of beef, most people don't eat seaweed in the same quantities, and as often as they eat beef. Seaweed is a source of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that can help protect cells from the kind of damage that can cause heart disease and cancer. However, the nutritional composition of red, brown, and green seaweed varies depending on the season and location. And, some seaweed may contain heavy metals if it's harvested from contaminated waters.
If the benefits alone don't push you to sneak a little of the green stuff into your lunch bowls and broths, then supporting your local seaweed farmers is always an incredible way to help your community and the planet.
"Our coastal waters are warming more quickly than 99 percent of the world's oceans," says Briana Warner, CEO of Maine-based Atlantic Sea Farms, the country's first large-scale kelp farm (kelp is a large category of seaweed). These changing climates are particularly affecting the livelihood of Maine's robust fishing community. But by providing these farmers with the resources to start their own kelp farms, Warner's company—which has also partnered with companies like Sweetgreen, Daily Harvest, Whole Foods and Wegmans—is not only helping to diversify marine farmers' income sources but also kick starts a chain reaction of eco-friendly effects.
"Right now, there's too much carbon in our air," explains Warner. "When it touches the water, the water absorbs the carbon, and the pH levels change, becoming more acidic. One negative effect of this acidification is that it erodes the shells of organisms like clams, oysters, and mussels." Growing kelp—especially native Maine varieties, like sugar kelp—not only removes 20 times more carbon from the atmosphere than land-based forests, but it also allows shell-bearing creatures to continue to thrive. "Plus, kelp does not require fresh water, arable lands, or fertilizer to grow," adds Warner. "It's great for both people and the environment."
Types of Seaweed
Now that you know all about the secret powers of seaweed (did we mention it could also become an eco-alternative to fossil fuels and plastic packaging?), let's talk about how you find the best ones for your palette. But first, it's important to understand some of the terminology around seaweed.
If you hear the term algae, it refers to the broad category of aquatic plants which can be divided up into smaller categories. One of those categories is seaweed. Bear in mind that even under the umbrella term seaweed, there are still thousands of varieties.
"Most types of seaweed are edible, but their flavors vary widely," says Lisette Kreischer, Netherlands-based co-author of the cookbook Ocean Greens: Explore the World of Edible Seaweed and Sea Vegetables and founder of seaweed-based vegan burger, The Dutch Weed Burger. "Some species of seaweed grow very slowly and remain small, while others create entire forests, or so-called 'kelp forests'."
If you're new to the seaweed world, Kreischer recommends starting with a more accessible seaweed species like the more leafy green sea lettuce (ulva lactuca) or dulse (palmaria palmata), a fellow leafy seaweed with a rich amber-red color. "Both of these are mild in flavor and easy to combine with other ingredients," she says. "Another wonderful thing about seaweed is that it is rich in umami which offers so many possibilities. A little can go a long way." Some of Kreischer's favorite complementary flavor profiles include tahini, soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, tomato, miso, and nutritional yeast.
Resources for Your Kitchen
Looking to bring more seaweed products into your kitchen? Companies like Atlantic Sea Farms and Barnacle Foods based in Alaska (where fresh kelp also flourishes) are keen on keeping the ingredients as accessible as they are delicious. For Barnacle Foods co-founder Lia Heifetz, it's all about elevating the tastes you already know and love. Harvesting bull kelp, which grows abundantly around the Pacific North American coast, Heifetz grew up loving its unique texture and taste. "While many other seaweed varieties are leafy, bull kelp has a stem that can grow up to 60 feet long. If you pulled it out of the water and took a bite, it'd taste like a bell pepper!" she says. "We also love that its flavor and texture lends itself well to all sorts of foods, like salsa, pickles, and hot sauces."
But if you want to keep it super simple (and opt for a lower-sodium swap!) take this tip from one local seaweed farmer, Peter Fischer of Maine Sea Farms: trade your salt shaker for dried sugar kelp flakes. "One of my favorite kelp dishes is fresh greens, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with sugar kelp flakes," says Fischer. "Sugar kelp has a very mild flavor and a salty taste. I liberally sprinkle sugar kelp flakes on anything savory or add them to soups and stews. I don't use salt anymore."
However, you decided to explore the wondrous world of seaweed, remember that like any superfood, it's important to make sure you know where it's coming from. "Make sure you're getting it from the cleanest, coldest waters can," says Warner. "A majority of seaweed is imported and sometimes dried, rehydrated, or dyed to look greener. Check to see where your seaweed is grown, and like any food, try to shop local."
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