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The secret powers of seaweed

The secret powers of seaweed

by Xa Milne 01 March 2015

Seaweed offers one of the broadest ranges of minerals of any food on the planet. Xa Milne uncovers the health benefits of this wonder food.

If you don’t already know, seaweed is quite simply a wonder food. But then we in the West are slow to catch on. Currently, two of the world’s oldest people are Japanese, and globally Japan boasts the highest life expectancy.

Studies show that women in Japan have up to four times lower risk of breast cancer than those in the United States, and rarely suffer from thyroid or prostate disease. This could be because seaweed has been a staple of Japanese culture for over 10,000 years and to this day still forms ten percent of the average person’s diet (approximately five grams of seaweed per day). Have we been missing a trick here in the West? Hopefully all this is about to change as seaweed is becoming widely available in the UK and Europe.

So where do we start? Red and green seaweeds are primarily composed of carbohydrates and provide a good energy source for the body, whilst brown seaweeds (kelps) are high in fibre and iodine. They are an excellent low-calorie, high-energy food. Researchers have concluded that the shorter life spans in the West result in part from the near total absence of dietary fucoidans. Fucoidins help the immune system, block cancer cells from spreading, help with tissue regeneration, relieve arthritis pain and help combat cardiovascular disease by thinning the blood and guarding against blood clots and lower cholesterol. Wakame (the seaweed commonly found in miso soup) and kombu (dashi stock, the basis of miso soup) are both a rich source of fucoidans and grow in plentiful supply around the UK coastline. That is good news for those of us who want to live a long seaweed-eating life!

Seaweed is also an excellent source of iodine, vitamin C, manganese, vitamin B2, protein, potassium, iron, zinc, vitamin B6, niacin, phosphorus and vitamin B1. It is hard to believe that weight for weight there is more iron in sea lettuce (green seaweed) and dulse (red seaweed) than sirloin steak and that alaria (brown kelp) has ten times the calcium of milk. Sea lettuce is one of the few vegetable sources of B12 (vital for the brain and nervous system).

Iodine deficiency is a critical problem of epidemic proportions in the West, where dairy and seafood intake is on the decline. Iodine is critical to healthy thyroid function which in turn controls energy levels, weight levels, cognitive health, unborn babies' mental function and prevention of autism and certain cancers. Seaweed is an excellent source of chelated (naturally occurring) iodine; as little as a heaped teaspoon of kombu in your cooking every three days for a month can effectively re-balance the thyroid function. If you are unsure what your iodine levels are there is a simple test you can do. Buy a dropper bottle of liquid iodine tincture from the chemist and paint a patch the size of a golf ball inside your elbow. If you are deficient the orange/brown colour will disappear in less than two hours.

Kombu air-drying
Kombu air-drying
Dulse seaweed
Freshly harvested dulse

Wondering what to do with the water that you’ve soaked your Kombu seaweed in? Don’t throw it away – strain it and drink the liquid. You’ve got yourself a highly mineralised power drink that will have you running further and biking faster. If you don’t want to drink it neat, it can be added to soups or stews to boost the nutritional content of your dish.

As well as being the perfect balance of minerals, seaweed is a healthy low sodium salt. Too much sodium is identified with high blood pressure, which contributes to heart disease and strokes, and too little sodium… well, food just doesn’t taste right. The polysaccharides in seaweed help with shelf-life and natural preservation as well as lowering blood pressure by relieving tension in the blood vessel walls. We know too much gourmet salt is bad for us, containing 98% sodium – compared to 9–12% sodium on average for seaweed, which delivers on taste without hardening the arteries. Eating seaweed regularly will help deal with cravings for salty junk food because you are getting the benefit of complex salts. And for those working out, as little as five grams of seaweed granules a day (a heaped teaspoon) can make a substantial difference to your overall health.

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