Wild seaweed has been a dietary staple mostly in Asian cultures, where it’s been foraged for centuries.
And now, the next kale could be kelp grown right here in the United States.
The hot new contender for the title of superfood has piqued the interest of American entrepreneurs, who are investing in kelp farming that grow seaweed to be available in both fresh and frozen forms.
People just can’t seem to kelp themselves when it comes to resisting this tendriled snack temptation, but are its touted health benefits real or nothing more than hype?
Good news: seaweed’s health benefits are far from fantasy.
In fact, it has enough scientific support for me to include it as a go-to ingredient in the SEAtox portion of my book, Wild Mediterranean, which is why I recommend this as one of my favorite and best-tested methods of eating your way to wellness.
Dietary Seaweed and Gut Health
The research continues to grow more convincing: seaweed contains a plethora of prebiotic compounds as well as a host of essential blood building enzymes, vitamins, and minerals.
A recent study, at Stanford University School of Medicine, discovered that dietary seaweed may help to promote a healthy gut.
The research they feature bolsters the prevailing theory that the gut bacteria we host can be both changed and cultivated by our diets. In turn, the bacteria impacts our health–very much a modern spin on the idea that ‘you are what you eat’. The study from Stanford talks at length about how the latest method to test this theory actually included seaweed, and for good reason—this sea veggie is packed with health benefits that are currently lacking in the modern American diet.
Stanford researchers transplanted seaweed-eating Bacteroides (good things to have!) from humans guts into 2 groups of mice fed different meal plans, and it turned out that the diet made all the difference.
Mice not fed any seaweed rejected the Bacteroides strain and shed it, mice fed seaweed were able to harbor the strain indefinitely and reap its benefits–including anti-inflammatory properties and immunoregulation: which could potentially protect your gut microbiome from chronic conditions like IBS and leaky gut syndrome.
The researchers could even control the strain’s growth in the gut by precisely calibrating the mices’ seaweed intake. Such specific control over a mice’s microbiome composition is incredible and may provide insight into how to maximize wellness in humans through our diets.
So how can such specific control over a mice’s microbiome composition provide insight into how to maximize wellness in humans through our diets? Should we take a hint from the mice and cultivate our own seaweed-eating bacteria by eating seaweed ourselves?
I say yes, and below I’ll highlight why it’s to your benefit to SEAtox instead of simply detox.
Seaweed: Putting the “Anti-” on Bad Health
Anyone looking to improve their health should know about eating foods that are “anti-”, like “antimicrobial”, “antifungal” or “anticancer”–seaweed happens to have all three of these benefits.
Why is seaweed good for you: the compounds found in microalgae like seaweed are actually cytotoxic– toxic to certain cells within an organism– and those toxins can kill the organisms they encounter. This toxicity gives seaweed it’s “anti-” powers.
In fact, research published this year found that seaweed extract had noticeable cytotoxic capabilities against bacterial baddies like Staph, E. Coli, and Candida. Strains of Staph are responsible for a wide range of objectionable conditions including boils, blood poisoning, and toxic shock syndrome and more people are coming down with antibiotic-resistant versions of Staph conditions every year. E. Coli causes classic food poisoning symptoms and its antibiotic-resistant strain has been in the news recently thanks to contaminated romaine lettuce; Candida is responsible for yeast infections and oral thrush.
Researchers then applied that very same extract to A-431 cancer cells and found that the application increased inhibition of cellular growth by 95.6% 48 hours after exposure.
Most importantly, the seaweed extract had little to no negative effect on normal cells (unlike traditional cancer treatments).
In another study published this month, seaweed extract was used not just to stop the proliferation of breast cancer cells but also to trigger apoptosis (cellular death). Its ability to fight the cancer cells was in direct proportion to the amount of seaweed extract taken by the patient. The more extract, the more cellular death–pretty incredible to think about.
Even if you’re not interested in the more dramatic benefits of seaweed, you likely want to avoid common types of fungus and that extract even can help with some strains of fungus that are notoriously hard to treat, and to several yeast and dermatophyte strains (think: ringworm, athlete’s foot and other icky conditions you could pick up at your local gym).
Seaweed is even anti-tubercular, which is important when you consider that 240,000 people died of the drug-resistant strain of that disease in 2016 and that 23 countries have reported at least 1 case of “XDR-TB”.
Seaweed: The Pro of “Pre”-ventative Health Measures
Seaweed is one of my top choices for a snack and is definitely what I consider a functional whole food that packs a gut improving punch. So I was happy to find that seaweed isn’t just an “anti-” superhero, it’s a “pro” in the preventative health world as well—operating as a pre-biotic. I’ve talked about the advantages of prebiotics before, but it’s worth discussing the specific benefits of my favorite sea veggie.
As a prebiotic, seaweed is capable of modulating your intestinal immune response and boosts the mucosal barrier of the stomach (so pesky things like germs are kept at bay). It also has those anti-inflammatory effects on the membrane, which is a boon for those with IBS or other digestive issues.
More generally, it also has all the established benefits of prebiotics in other studies and plays a major role in inhibiting certain common human diseases, like obesity and diabetes.
A 2016 study concluded that careful use of prebiotics could be the best preventative for a variety of human illnesses in the future from cancer to autoimmune conditions like Crohn’s and Type 1 Diabetes.
Health is Wealth: How to add seaweed to your diet
The simplest way to take in seaweed is to add nori sheets to your daily snack, by eating them all by themselves or by using them to wrap your favorite veggies and avocado. Make sure to purchase nori that comes from waters that are regularly tested for heavy metals and contaminants.
There are lots of kinds of seaweed, and almost all are readily available in grocers and online through Amazon:
Arame – has a salty flavor that does well when mixed with other vegetables like spinach sautés with garlic and sesame oil.
Dulse – one of the most versatile of seaweeds. Rich in minerals, this particular sea vegetable has a savory umami taste and is quite salty. Can also be used as a replacement for sea salt and used on virtually anything, from salads to your morning omelet!
Hiziki – taste more like a mushroom than it does sea vegetable. Add to a fresh salad or topped on sweet potato noodle “pasta”.
Kelp – similar to a pulse seaweed, kelp has a savory flavor rich in minerals and salt. You can use in multiple ways from soups to stir-frys.
Wakame – it tastes briny, with a slightly sweet taste. Combine with raw carrot sticks and coconut aminos, and is most commonly used in miso soup.
Nori— dry and toasty, with a rich taste of umami. Nori is the best introduction to seaweed and can be used as a wrap for rice and vegetables.
Try the Sea and Land Arugula Salad recipe and top with your favorite protein for an easy introduction to edible seaweed!
Seaweed and other sea veggies like it are what I consider my true “secret weapons” to improve health because they are so loaded with those “anti” and “pre”(biotic, that is!) benefits for the whole body. It’s antibiotic, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, promisingly anti-cancer, and filled with antioxidants.
The even sweeter bonus: it’s a prebiotic that aids in the regulation of the gut and quiets any overactive immune responses that may arise.
With such a stellar set of health-boosting credentials, it’s a must eat in my book – and I mean that literally! You’ll find recipes and suggestions for its incorporation into your diet in my book, Wild Mediterranean.
I toss seaweed into salads and soups, bake them into a chip-like snack, or include the dried version as an herb in various dishes.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how you eat it, just be sure you do! Your body will thank you.
Additional studies on the benefits of seaweed for health
International Journal of Biological Macromolecules: Polysaccharides from brown seaweed have potential uses as functional food components to improve human gut health.
Journal of Food Science: Seaweed protein-derived peptides and potential health impacts in the prevention of hypertension, diabetes and oxidative stress.
Molecular Nutrition and Food Research: The 1975 Japanese diet exhibited strong health benefits, containing 14 components that were found in fish, fruits, vegetables, seaweed, soybean foods, soup stock “dashi”, and fermented seasoning.
Journal of Applied Phycology: There is compelling evidence suggesting that seaweed might be protective against different types of cancers such as breast cancer in seaweed consuming populations.
Frontiers in Nutrition: The overall results support multiple prebiotic effects of seaweed through body weight reduction, enhanced immune response, and desirable changes in intestinal microbiota composition, suggesting the great potential as an effective prebiotic for the promotion of host metabolism and reduction of obesity in humans.
International Journal of Molecular Sciences: The effects of non-starch polysaccharides on inflammatory bowel disease.
International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition: Seaweeds showed a significant increase in total SCFA production, particularly acetate and propionate.