Q:Is current human consumption of seaweed ecologically harmful? Doesn't seaweed serve some greater purpose in the oceans than as an ingredient in my sushi?
A:Whether wrapped around rice or dumped on fields as fertilizer, that slimy macroalgae known as seaweed has been put to creative use by coastal communities globe-wide for thousands of years. While most Westerners couldn't imagine ingesting the green goop that thrives on boat hulls and rocky shores until sushi came along, wrapping cellulite-ridden thighs in the stuff was a sign that some had caught on to the sea vegetables' health properties. Although governments no longer publicly advocate kelp as a protective treatment against radioactive fallout as they did in the 50s, several seaweeds are still recommended for radioactive and heavy metal detoxification.
And just as they're useful in absorbing toxins from your system, the spongy weeds are also able to suck up pollutants from the sea. Some regions have used various species to help clean up polluted waters and DDT contaminated soil. (One type of invasive, genetically altered alga, Caulerpa, so thrives on agricultural runoff and sewage that it smothers other organisms in dirty waters. Ew.) It's all quite fascinating, but you have to wonder if what's on your plate is also loaded with toxins from the deep.
If prodded, most seaweed suppliers are sure to tell you their goods come from clean waters, but how do you know for sure? Especially since most labels say little more than that they're a "product of Japan," though they're actually from China (the world's top seaweed supplier) or Korea, where it's cheaper. And Japanese imports were actually barred from Australia and New Zealand in the 80s because of high levels of lead and cadmium.
When shopping for Asian strands of edible seaweed, some experts in the field say to steer clear of cheap brands available in Chinatown and go for higher-end health-food-store suppliers instead. Eden Foods, for instance, gets all its sea greens (from $7 at Noah's on Yonge or Bloor, Whole Foods on Avenue Road, Big Carrot on Danforth) from ecologically protected waters where there's no heavy industry and quotas are in place to prevent overharvesting (another big seaweed problem). Eden's products are tested for heavy metals and contaminants. Most are wild and hand-harvested, except its nori and wakame (there's little wild nori and wakame left). Mituku is another high-grade brand with similar practices (from $6.59 at Whole Foods, Big Carrot and Noah's).
A couple of other brands are even certified organic. How can seaweed be certified, considering there's no way to really control its environment (namely the ocean)? Maine Coast Sea Vegetables says it's all about the process. Beds can't be near radioactive, chemical or bacteriological contamination, plants have to be harvested sustainably, and herbicides can't be sprayed on drying fields, boats or nets. Plus, its ocean veggies are also tested for pesticides and heavy metals (from $4.39 at Big Carrot and Noah's). Nova Scotia's Atlantic Mariculture dulse is also certified organic (from $2.89 at Big Carrot and Noah's).
You can also buy hand-harvested kelp, dulse, nori and even plant fertilizers in bulk from the Maine Seaweed Company, which has chosen not to certify but says it's exceeded certification standards and supplies seaweed to bigger certified companies. ($20/lb or $60/3-lb variety family packs at www.maineseaweedcompany.com).
FYI, hijiki, while tasty, is now illegal in Canada (although you wouldn't know it by looking at the menus of some Japanese restaurants). Health Canada warns that it contains significant levels of naturally occurring though carcinogenic inorganic arsenic and should be avoided. The Brit warning is less dire, saying you won't die from eating it on occasion.
If you're popping seaweed pills or powdered shakes for therapeutic reasons, consider going organic. Big Carrot and Whole Foods have certified organic spirulina from $10. Big Carrot also has certified organic kelp and a kelp-bladderack blend from $11.99.
If you're smearing sea greens on your skin, Aubrey Organics is the only beauty product maker we could find in Toronto that uses certified organic algae (from $8.99 for toner, moisturizers, cleansers and masks at Whole Foods, Big Carrot and Noah's).
And we can't end our seaweed discussion without addressing carrageenan, the red seaweed-based thickener found in virtually everything, from toothpaste and ice cream to beer and shoe polish. Some researchers have said the industrially harvested (sometimes overharvested) plant extract is potentially carcinogenic. However, it should be noted that only chemically treated, degraded carrageenan has been tied to cancer. The food-grade stuff is considered safe.
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