Good for you and the planet: The truth about sea vegetables

“Eat your vegetables!” This is classic nutrition advice you’ve probably heard since childhood. But what about “eat your sea vegetables”? Coastal communities in Japan, Scandinavia, Ireland and Scotland, and the Pacific and Caribbean islands have been eating these delicious seaweeds and coastal marsh succulents for thousands of years.

Praised by chefs for their rich briny flavor, kelps are popular in hearty dashi broths like ramen and miso. Navy beans can be added to stir fry or lightly sautéed with butter and herbs. Dals, an attractive red leafy seaweed, makes a great salad or side vegetable – and when dried, the powder has a “bacon-like” flavor. Nori is another red seaweed that is dried and used to wrap sushi and other foods for a salty-edible coating.

For this traditional diet, sea vegetables are celebrated for their nutrients. They are low in fat, rich in fiber, and contain essential vitamins and minerals.

Sea vegetables are good for you

Sea vegetables are nutritious, explains Elliott Torsoni, registered dietitian nutritionist, RDN, and certified diabetes educator. “They are rich in essential vitamins, minerals and iodine,” he says.

Torsoni highlights the additional nutritional benefits of sea vegetables:

If you’re looking for foods that are not only good for you, but also good for the planet, sea green vegetables fit the bill.

Compared to land vegetables, they have a lower carbon footprint, less waste and are easier to grow.

That said, it’s important to note that since sea vegetables are such a rich source of iodine, consider your overall sources of iodine (such as iodized salt, fish and seafood, dairy products) to avoid consuming too much. Excess iodine can cause metabolic imbalances.

Explore the variety of sea vegetables

“Sea green” isn’t just green, explains registered dietitian Jenna Volpe. This vegetable is available in red, brown, yellow or even pink. They are often referred to as seaweed, adds Volpe. “Some different examples of edible sea greens include nori, kelp, kombu, wakame, dulse, and Irish moss.”

And while many people may be unfamiliar with the name algae, many have had some at some point. For example, wakame in miso soup contains seaweed, and many sushi rolls are wrapped in nori.

Different sea vegetables have subtle flavor differences. Sea lettuce, like land lettuce, is mild and neutral, comfortingly sweet. The key is to explore and find the texture and flavor you love.

Like many vegetables, sea greens can be easy to prepare. Enjoy them raw in salads or smoothies, or stir-fry or stir-fry separately or in meals. While some specialty and online stores carry fresh seaweed, grocery chains have begun stocking dried and powdered seaweed and sea green products (ie, roasted snacks).

Volp suggests more ways to incorporate the nutritional benefits of sea greens into the diet:

  • Add dried seaweed to the salad
  • Eat or make sushi to eat nori a few times a week or month
  • Sprinkle dried kelp flakes into food
  • Snack on mineral-dense nori “seaweed sticks.”
  • Add powdered sea greens to smoothies

Scientists have tested sea vegetables from around the world for heavy metals and other contaminants, and everywhere they have consistently found that most species contain lead, cadmium and arsenic. Most seaweed products on the market today probably contain traces of one or all three of these metals. Levels can vary between species, but even within the same species they differ depending on local factors such as temperature, salinity, water acidity, and river, human population, and industrial pollution.

Sea vegetables are a delicious, easy way to increase the variety of vegetables in your diet. Try adding some to your plate (or cup) today and absorb the benefits of this nutritional powerhouse from the ocean.

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