Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Seaweed: A misunderstood and neglected "vegetable"

As a longstanding fan of Japanese food, seaweed or sea vegetables (a great euphemism for those who don't care to eat "weeds") have grown on me as a tasty accompaniment to my sushi and sashimi. More recently, I have come to understand the value of including seaweed in our diets on a regular basis. Minerals are essential for health and seaweeds may be the single best food source for supplying our bodies with the essential minerals we all need. Seaweed not only supplies iodine, but also a balanced combination of the other essential minerals that humans require for optimal health.

We have all heard of vitamins and minerals, but since vitamins (and vitamin deficiencies) have received most of the press, we rarely hear about mineral deficiencies. It turns out that minerals are just as essential to our health as vitamins. In fact, in modern societies mineral deficiencies are actually a much greater cause for concern than vitamin deficiencies.

Mineral deficiencies have become an increasing problem since the development of industrial farming methods. Every time it rains, minerals get washed from our soils into surrounding waterways, eventually making their way out to the ocean. While all crop farming increases this loss of minerals from the soil, modern industrial methods accelerate this process dramatically.

With our soils depleted of essential minerals, the plants trying to survive on these soils do not have the building blocks they need for their optimum health. Mineral deficient plants result in mineral deficient animals who depend on this soil...in other words, all of us!

For example, approximately 75% of people living in North America have been found to be magnesium deficient. Given that magnesium has been found to be essential in multiple biochemical pathways in the human body, this becomes a real concern.

There are at least twenty essential minerals we require as humans, but typical industrial farming only replaces six (and often only three) of these minerals into the soil with nitrogen fertilizers. This leaves between sixteen to nineteen essential minerals being leached from our soils, unreplaced, each year. Organic and Biodynamic farming methods work to replace these minerals.

Since all these minerals are washed into the ocean, it becomes clear that seaweeds enjoy a plentiful abundance of minerals for their growth. So incorporating seaweeds into our diets allows us a natural and plentiful supply of these minerals for our diet and long term health.

The recent catastrophe in Japan has made everyone more aware about the use of iodine (an essential mineral critical to the function of the thyroid gland) to offer protection from some forms of radiation (radioiodine, in particular). However, unless you are in the immediate vicinity of a nuclear accident, the use of potassium iodide is overkill, and could actually be dangerous for some people. For example, patients suffering from hypertension or Hashimoto's Thyroiditis could have an exacerbation of their illness.

On the other hand, increasing our daily intake of natural iodine is a very healthy way to make sure we are not iodine deficient (as many people probably are). A regular intake of natural iodine provides our thyroid glands with enough iodine to function optimally. Iodine deficiency leads our thyroids to soak up any iodine available from the environment. But our thyroids cannot distinguish between radioactive iodine and non-radioactive iodine. If radioactive iodine is present in your environment and you are iodine deficient, then your thyroid will take up this dangerous form of iodine instead. Obviously This is not a great solution for long term health. A regular intake of seaweed is a much better solution. Not only do you increase your intake of iodine, you also increase your intake of all the other essential minerals which humans require for optimal health.

Being a fan of seaweed, I was immediately concerned when I learned that the Fukushima Daichi nuclear reactors are close to the kelp beds where the Japanese farm some of their seaweed. Being that Japanese seaweed is considered some of the highest quality in the world, radioactive runoff could cause long term harm to these kelp beds. Recent reports that a significant increase in radioactivity is being detected in the sea water off the coast of the troubled nuclear plant makes me even more concerned. Will this wonderful source of seaweed be tainted for years to come? I personally wouldn't want seaweed that had incorporated radioactive elements into it's growth cycle. Would anyone?

Given these concerns, now may be the best time to consider stocking up on Japanese seaweed. Personally, I look for high quality seaweed which is harvested from clean waters away from cities or industrial pollution. For Japanese seaweed, I have enjoyed the products from Eden Foods. As long as supplies are available from last years harvest, the seaweed should be safe. Other countries that supply seaweed include China, Korea and North America. For North American seaweed, I trust Maine Coast Sea Vegetables (interestingly, they have been swamped with orders since the events in Japan).

I do recommend limiting two types of seaweed: Irish Moss which is the source of the gelling agent known as carrageenan (shown to promote inflammation), and Hijiki (or Hiziki) which has a relatively high concentration of naturally bound arsenic. While Hiziki has never been shown to cause illness, the Japanese traditionally eat this seaweed in very limited quantities. Hiziki happens to be one of my favorite seaweeds, however, I am cautious to eat only small amounts at a time.

It is a good idea to have seaweed available in your emergency supplies. If you had no other source of vegetables in an emergency, you could still get all of your essential minerals from seaweed. For your emergency supplies, I recommend products which are already toasted so that soaking and cooking the seaweed will not be necessary in an emergency situation where water (and a heat source) may be at a premium.

Finally, seaweed is easy to prepare. If it is not already toasted, then you can toast it and add it as a crunchy topping to your favorite foods. You can also take the dried seaweed, soak it for 5-15 minutes (as suggested on the package) and add it to your favorite stew or stir-fry. Certain seaweeds (e.g. Dulse) are also excellent for seasoning just about any food. Another option is preparing seaweed as the Japanese do in a traditional pickled seaweed salad. I haven't tried making this myself but I do enjoy picking it up from our local Japanese market. Unfortunately, since I can't be sure of the purity of the seaweed from these markets, I am looking forward to learning how to make these dishes at home, where I can assure the quality of the ingredients.

I hope you enjoy including seaweed into your diet,

Dr. Rebecca

Further reading:

Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.

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