Nutrition

Seaweed: the ‘superfood’ with substance

January 8th 2017 / Anna Hunter

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A new superfood shimmies along every season, but it’s one that’s graced our shores for centuries that we should be paying attention to. Here’s why seaweed packs a serious punch in the health stakes…

Seaweed: it has none of the glamour of its bright, colourful and exotic superfood cousins, but if you look beyond the slimy façade, the humble marine algae has a hell of a lot of love to give, from helping us to manage our weight to fighting disease and doing a far better al dente pasta impression than a courgette ever could. It’s been under a rock in the Western world, so to speak, for quite some time, but it’s swimming into public consciousness at a rate of knots, as Mintel Global Food Science Analyst Stephanie Mattucci explains:

“Seaweed has been a famous delicacy in many Asian countries for centuries, celebrated for its flavour and nourishing powers. While still somewhat niche in Europe, we believe that seaweed could become the next superfood. Due to its abundance in natural vitamins, minerals, and plant-based protein, seaweed speaks to the growing quest for naturally functional foods and alternative protein sources in the West.”

According to Mintel research, food and drink product launches with seaweed flavours, including kombu, nori/laver, and wakame seaweed flavours, increased by 147% in Europe between 2011 and 2015, and the popularity of seaweed further skyrocketed last year when Jamie Oliver bigged it up in his usual down-to-earth style:

“It’s got loads of iodine and it’s the most nutritious vegetable in the world. It’s like dynamite- fibre, nutrients, all the minerals, aids digestion- unbelievable.”

A glimpse at Jamie’s Instagram feed reveals that he’s been known to forage for sea greens himself, and his positive endorsement of seaweed, possibly combined with the fact that he has the most followed foodie Instagram account in the world, is thought to have prompted a 125% hike in the sale of seaweed in Waitrose last year.

According to Mintel studies, us Europeans are more into seaweed than North America and Latin America combined, with 44% of us Brits interested in incorporating algae into our diet as a protein source. Seaweed snacks are the most prolific food category, with 37% of launches cropping up in this sector, but algae can enrich everything from soup to sauce to spreads and sweet bakes (in a fascinating twist when added to dough it gives bread a longer shelf life too).

If you’re yet to be convinced to kelp yourself (sorry) to a packet of marine greens alongside your weekly shop, here’s the case for diving into seaweed…

It’s a friend to your thyroid

You may not spend a great deal of time considering your thyroid function, but to tick along nicely, the thyroid needs a good dose of iodine. Rather shockingly, according to the British Thyroid Association, 70% of young women in the UK are iodine deficient, which can trigger thyroid dysfunction, leading to issues such as weight gain, hair loss, fatigue, dry skin and depression. A 2016 survey conducted by Far East inspired food outlet itsu indicates that the majority of us don’t have iodine deficiency on our radar, despite the fact that many of us are struggling to get enough, with 90% of UK responders admitting that they’re never heard of iodine deficiency, and weren’t aware of its symptoms. Iodine is quite tricky to acquire in our daily diets, in part owing to the increasingly poor soil quality that our food is grown in, however, as seaweed grows in a mineral-rich environment, its iodine prowess is protected. If you’re after an easy way to up your iodine intake, a packet of itsu Crispy Seaweed Thins, £1, delivers over 65% of your daily recommended iodine dose, at just 24 calories a serving.

It’s a mighty meat alternative

Nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed emphasises that Veganuary is the ideal time to dabble in the delights of dulse and other seaweed such varieties:

“Seaweed is a particularly good option for vegetarians and vegans, being a source of vital nutrients found in meat and fish (such as the elusive vitamin B12),
 but that are often lacking in some plant-based or vegetarian diets.”

Given that their is said to be around 4000 types of seaweed, and 650 varieties of edible seaweed growing in British waters alone, seaweed fatigue shouldn’t be an issue, especially given that different forms offer diverse and distinctive taste profiles. From smoky to sweet to downright fishy, there’s something to suit all palates, and if you can’t abide by the ‘tangy’ whiff, soaking seaweed in hot water should eliminate any pungent remnants of the seaside. If it’s still more stinky than would like, try adding vinegar, ginger or lemon to the soaking water. Those missing meat should note that seaweed specialists Seamore have just launched ‘seaweed bacon’. In truth nothing has yet taken actual bacon off of its pedestal of deliciousness as yet, but here’s hoping.

It also moonlights as pasta

Put the spiralizer away; 2017 is set to be the year of the seaweed spaghetti impersonator. Seamore's I Sea Pasta, £5.99, brings himanthalia seaweed to your plate in the form of rather convincing tagliatelle (it’s got a lot more ‘bite’ than your average spiralized vegetable). If you really want to go to town on the old algae, serve it with homemade seaweed pesto- keep your eyes peeled for a recipe onsite soon.

It’s packed with vitamins and minerals

On your bike, kale. Seaweed is the gold standard of greens, as founder of Mara Seaweed and author of The Seaweed Cookbook Xa Milne confirms:

“Seaweed contains all 56 minerals and trace elements essential for optimum health. It also contains as much as 10 to 20 times the minerals of land plants and incorporating as little as a spoonful a day into your diet can therefore make a real difference.”

It seems that seaweed goes further than its status of ultimate marine multivitamin in its protective capabilities too, as nutrition advisor for Maggie’s Cancer Centre Catherine Zabilowicz highlights:

“Many types of brown seaweed contain a sulphur-rich polysaccharide called ‘fucoidan’. There has been some research to show that this compound appears to inhibit cancer cell proliferation and induce the mechanism of apoptosis, or programmed cell death, in cancer cells. Fucoidan has also been found to be anti-inflammatory, antiviral and supportive of the immune system, all of which of of great importance in the reduction of cancer risk.”

Given that the Japanese consume more seaweed than any other nation, it’s thought that a high intake of the likes of fucoidan and iodine could go some way to explaining why the Japanese population also has the lowest rates in the world for certain cancers.

It could speed along weight loss

Being low calorie in itself, seaweed has a fair few additional advantages from a slimming or weight maintenance point of view, as nutritional therapist Kerry Rae illustrates:

“Seaweed can help with weight loss as it is, as a whole, a low GI food, which means that it releases energy from food slowly, which helps prevent large sugar highs and then the subsequent lows, which over time can lead to sugar cravings and eventually type 2 diabetes.”

“Seaweeds are also full of soluble fibre that slows down our digestive system and gives us a feeling of satiety, which can be beneficial for weight loss and make us feel fuller for longer.”

It gets better…

“The University of Newcastle has proposed that a compound in seaweed could stop the body absorbing fat, which may prove beneficial in the fight against obesity.”

As always more research is needed to confirm this nigh-on miraculous property, but in the meantime neck a nori sheet and enjoy that virtuous sensation. The taste element should prove pleasing too…

It could help us to reduce our salt and sugar intake

Seaweeds are abundant in umami, often referred to as our ‘fifth taste’, thanks to the high presence of amino acid glutamate. Xa Milne clarifies why this makes seaweed quite the cheffy staple:

“Umami draws the flavour out of ingredients without having to use strong seasoning. A strange shift of the palate happens where you do not need as much salt or sugar to make your food taste good.”

Mintel intel proves that the Brits are an enlightened bunch where seaweed as condiment is concerned, as 36% of UK consumers who sue herbs, spices or seasonings agree that ground, dried seaweed would be a good alternative to salt for flavouring.

It could be good news for fertility

Kerry proposes that a combination of science and storytelling has marked seaweed as a positive dietary addition from a hormonal point of view:

“Fertility could be supported by the inclusion of seaweed in our diets as it contains many key nutrients that our body needs to balance our hormones and support reproductive health, including vitamin B6, B12, C and E.”

“In Korea, seaweed is also recommended for pregnant women and in the first three weeks after childbirth women are given seaweed soup three times a day as, according to elders and Korean folklore, it is supposed to replenish and rejuvenate the body as well as help produce breast milk.”

By all means load up on the miso soup, but be aware that you can have too much of a good thing, as seaweed’s high levels of potassium, vitamin K and the much lauded iodine can actually prove detrimental to health if over consumed, especially if you suffer from kidney problems.

It’s sustainable

Clearly seaweed doesn’t require land to grow, thus also doesn’t necessitate the use of fertilizer, pesticides or extra water, plus seaweed grows abundantly across UK coasts. In order to maintain its sustainable credentials, seas need to be kept clean, cultivation controlled and harvesting monitored, but as environmentally friendly food choices go, seaweed’s a good’un.

The Seaweed Cookbook by Xa Milne is published by Michael Joseph, £16.99, buy online

Want to know more about the beauty benefits of seaweed? Dive into this article…

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