Monday, September 12, 2011

Take a Chance on Nutrient-Packed "Sea Greens"

Some of the ocean's greatest culinary delights have the worst reputations. We've already sung the praises of the healthy, safe, cheap, sustainable and (arguably) delicious sardine. Now it's time to re-evaluate seaweed, another nutrient-packed, environmentally friendly, affordable product of the ocean.

Jennifer Adler holding seaweed.
Bastyr nutrition faculty Jennifer Adler sings the praises of seaweed.

Seaweed belongs in the pantheon of "superfoods," says Jennifer Adler, MS, CN, a nutrition faculty member at Bastyr University and founder of the practice Passionate Nutrition. Every summer she leads trips to the San Juan Islands to teach students how to harvest Puget Sound seaweed — or, more appetizingly, "sea greens."

They can be added to lots of everyday meals­ — soups, stir-fries, eggs, casseroles, beans, rice, salad dressings, even burgers, Adler says. And unlike mushrooms and berries, all varieties of seaweed are safe (although stomachaches from rare varieties are possible and it is safer to harvest seaweed from cleaner waters away from urban areas).

"It's just so user-friendly," says Adler. "It's one of the most nutrient-dense foods we have, especially regarding minerals. And minerals are one of the things Americans are most lacking."

Seaweed is rich in iodine, vitamin K, calcium, iron and fiber. It can nourish the thyroid gland, promoting an active metabolism, longevity, digestive health and hair and skin gloss, says Adler. It's also been credited with detoxifying organs and combating radiation (which is why Japanese citizens rushed to buy it after the Fukushima nuclear disaster).

The key, says Adler, is to eat a little bit frequently, which is healthier than eating a large amount every few weeks. She recommends keeping a salt shaker of dried, crumbled greens near the stove, as a reminder to use it often.

"You don't want to add a ton or it becomes a seaweed salad," she says. "If you add a little all the time, you're really not even tasting it."

Because it grows in the water, seaweed doesn't break down through cooking the way other leafy greens do­ — another reason to use a little at a time.

If you're not interested in hauling it out of the sea yourself, Adler recommends buying seaweed at health food stores (some regular grocery stores also carry it). Look for language indicating it's been harvested from the wild, not farmed. Some Asian food stories carry super-cheap brands but, says Adler, "you tend to get what you pay for."

She suggests the dulse variety as a dark, iron-rich addition to stir-fries or eggs, or crumbled in popcorn. Hijiki and arame are also sure bets, she says. Nori has slightly fewer nutrients, but is often sold as a pre-toasted snack. Pre-ground kelp is the only type she warns against, saying it often tastes fishy and unpleasant.

You're unlikely to deplete the ocean no matter how much you eat. One variety, bullwhip kelp, grows almost 18 inches a day, or nearly twice as fast as kudzu.

Given all that, Adler is glad to promote it. "Seaweed is salty, it's crunchy, it tastes good, and there are no side effects," she told Seattle Weekly. "It seems like such a perfect match for our bodies."

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