Have We Forgotten How to Eat Seaweed?

seaweed-rockGuest post by Annie Greenwood

One option that is often overlooked by followers of the paleo diet is seaweed. Although seaweeds have traditionally been eaten by coastal communities all around the world, their absence from most modern Western diets has made it easy to forget that sea vegetables can be an important source of nutrition. Incorporating seaweed into your diet can provide welcome variation, and if you live near the coast, it may even be possible to collect your own seaweed.

Traditional Use of Seaweed

Seaweed is a largely forgotten food in the Western diet, although it once played a key role in the diets of coastal communities around the world as a readily available, reliable source of protein and other nutrients. It remains a common ingredient in many Asian cuisines particularly in Japan, Korea and the coastal regions of China. International versions of these dishes have familiarized people around the world with the use of seaweed in foods such as sushi, but it is often seen as a food that is not a traditional part of the Western diet. Although many people are unaware of the once widespread use of seaweed, some people do continue to use it in traditional recipes, often having to pick their own seaweed in order to obtain it fresh, since there is little large-scale commercial production outside of Asia. People still snack on seaweed in Iceland and Ireland, or make the traditional staple of laver bread from seaweed and oats in Wales. The traditional harvest of seaweed along the eastern and western shores of Canada and the US still continues, at a small scale.

Health Benefits of Eating Seaweed

Seaweed provides some of the same nutritional benefits as other vegetables, being high in fiber and low in fat, and rich in a range of vitamins and minerals. The exact nutritional benefits can vary between species, with some types of seaweed being particularly high in certain nutrients. Some of the nutrients that can be found in seaweed are not commonly in such high quantities in other vegetables. Seaweed can be an excellent source of iodine and calcium, which may be difficult to obtain from other foods. Seaweed is also a good source of protein. The highest protein content, of about 47%, is found in Nori, but other types of seaweed range between 7 and 35% protein. In addition to these nutritional benefits, a number of medicinal benefits have been attributed to seaweed, including the ability to help reduce fat absorption and lower cholesterol. Consumption of seaweed might even play a role in enabling the famously long lives enjoyed by the people of Okinawa, Japan.

Seaweed Farming and Harvesting

Although commercial seaweed farming is common in Asia, in other parts of the world, such as Ireland or the coastal US, collection tends to be on a much smaller scale. Many families who live near the sea in traditional seaweed harvesting areas still gather their own seaweed by hand. A clean beach with plenty of healthy seaweed can provide an excellent harvest, if you know which species of edible seaweed are available in your area. Alongside this small-scale harvesting, commercial farming or collection of seaweed is increasing in many parts of the world, including the US, as interest in seaweed as a source of food, potential new medicines, and fuel increases. Approximately 7.5 to 8 million wet tonnes of seaweed is already harvested commercially every year, mostly in Asia. A license for commercial gathering of seaweed in the UK was issued for the first time in 2012, demonstrating the recent growth of this market in Europe. This type of small scale harvesting for personal use and sale is likely to increase in the near future, but there may also be more industrial scale farming if seaweed lives up to its potential as a biofuel. If commercial farming does increase in the US and Europe, it could also increase the supply of fresh edible seaweed.

How to Eat Seaweed

Many species of seaweed are edible, and it is possible to find plenty of different ways to use these sea vegetables. Common options involve eating them raw, oven roasting them to eat as chips, and adding them to soups and stir-fries. Arame, which is high in potassium, and Arame are often eaten in these forms.

Two types of kelp, Kombu and Wakame, are among the most commonly eaten seaweeds. Both are often bought dried, which means they require soaking before use, although they can be added directly into soup in order to ensure all the nutrients are retained. Dried flakes of these seaweeds are also available, which can be added to food as a far more nutritious alternative to salt. Kombu is high in iodine and is a good choice for making soup, although it can also be cooked with beans in order to make them easier to digest. Wakame is particularly high in calcium. It has a zesty flavor that makes it an interesting addition to salads, simply washed and eaten raw.

Nori is another popular seaweed, which is often used in sushi. It is particularly nutritious, with high levels of fiber, omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin C and B12. Nori can be eaten in many ways, but an interesting option is to cook it filled with rice and vegetables.

Carrageen is unusual in that it is often used as a thickener in sweet recipes. It is boiled in both Irish and Caribbean recipes to make thick jellies or puddings, which in the Caribbean are flavored with vanilla or cinnamon, and mixed with rum or milk.

The vast range of edible seaweeds provides many options for incorporating seaweed into a healthy paleo diet, whether it is as an alternative to a more common vegetable like spinach, in Asian cuisine, or in the forgotten recipes that were once common in our coastal communities. Remembering the part that seaweed once played in our diet could provide us with a means of improving the way we eat today.

“Annie Greenwood balances being a full time mother with her passion for writing. When not exploring new green uses of our renewable resources or trying new recipes, she likes to get out an explore the countryside around her home.”

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