(Jamaica Gleaner) Wednesday | November 23, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Seaweed, also known as sea vegetables, is a general name for several species of algae and marine plants that grow in water bodies like rivers, lakes, seas and oceans. They vary in size from minute to gigantic, with colours like red, brown, and green, and are easily found on seashores or coastlines.
Seaweeds play an extremely vital role for marine ecology. They are the base for the food chains and are home to many sea creatures. And in addition, seaweed has properties that offer health benefits to humans.
A 25-year study of the world’s longest living population, the Okinawans of Japan, showed that sea vegetables were a big part of the seven to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables they eat daily.
UK research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food confirms that many sea vegetables are quite low in calories and fat, while high in minerals like calcium, iron, copper and iodine. Seaweed is extremely high in protein (nearly 50 per cent of their weight), particularly proteins called bioactive peptides that may offer extraordinary benefits to our health.
They also contain other substances called polysaccharides that may help in the prevention of degenerative diseases and slow the ageing process.
Popular forms of seaweed
-Nori is the dried, usually toasted sheets of seaweed used as the wrapping in sushi dishes. The sheets can be cut into strips and eaten like noodles or added to stir-fry.
– Kelp is the common brown seaweed often found washed up on beaches. It is available in powder form for use as seasoning or a salt substitute, or as a tablet supplement.
– Dulse is available as a powder or dried leaves and is used in salads and stews. The leaves, when lightly pan-fried, become crispy like potato chips.
– Irish moss, also known as sea moss, is found as different species on the shorelines of the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. The Irish, during their severe famine in the 19th century, relied heavily on Irish moss as their main source of nutrition.
Irish moss is very mucilaginous when soaked in water and has a tough and rubbery texture that is rather inedible. It is traditionally boiled in water and consumed as a liquid broth, to which flavours and sweeteners are usually added.
Modern recipes often mix the raw gel into various foods and drinks as a nutritious thickening agent. It is often used as a vegetarian substitute for gelatin as it provides a similar consistency.
– Arame is black when it is dried, the form in which it is usually sold. It is usually soaked in water before adding it to food being cooked.
– Kombu, sold as dried strips, can be used as a seasoning agent in many dishes.
Blood pressure benefits
Investigators have found that the special proteins (bioactive peptides) in seaweed have effects similar to a commonly prescribed group of drugs used to treat high blood pressure. They are called ACE inhibitors. They work, but the problem is they can also cause headaches, dizziness, inflammation, fatigue, nausea, kidney failure, and increased potassium in the blood that can cause heart problems.
Sea vegetables are the first natural substances discovered that can have the same health effects without these harmful side effects.
Scientists at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne have found a substance in brown seaweed that strengthens the gut mucus, which forms a protective lining for the intestines. It also causes food to release its energy more slowly and reduce blood sugar imbalance.
Research on Japanese women showed that high seaweed intake increases the good bacteria in the gut. The enzymes in some seaweed also help to digest beans and peas, and reduce problems with gas.
Metabolism and weight control
Seaweed could be a useful addition to your weight-loss diet. They are high in fibre, have very few calories and provide a good balance of essential minerals and vitamins.
The high content of organic iodine makes sea vegetables very useful in optimising thyroid function and improving the metabolism of excess fat.
An enlarged thyroid gland (goiter) as well as the underactive or overactive thyroid seems to benefit from regular seaweed consumption.
Seaweed is very high in lignans, which help to block the chemical oestrogen that can predispose people to cancers such as breast cancer. Research even suggests that kelp consumption might be a factor in the lower rates of breast cancer in Japan and that seaweed may act as a natural female hormone balancer.
All-round tonic food
In Ireland and the Caribbean, seaweed-based drinks and soups are drunk as a regular pick-me-up, or after an illness.
It goes well with sushi, tofu, miso soup, salads, vegetable stews and stir-fries, and greens.