The beneficent ocean offers much more to human nutrition than its gilled creatures. Think salty sea vegetables like the wonderfully textured nori wrapped around your sushi. But don't stop there. Nori's got plenty of relatives, available mostly at health food stores and Japanese and Korean groceries: arame , hiziki , wakame , kombu ( kelp ) and dulse are the most common. These plants of the deep are super-rich in minerals, vitamins and protein, and even supply those elusive essential fatty acids. Sea veggies also have the remarkable property of binding with toxic heavy metals and radioactive molecules in the digestive tract, removing these poisons from your body.
But despite their powerful nutrient profile, ocean plants have their downside. Some commercial brands, especially those originating from Japan, have been found to be heavily contaminated with pollutants. Though they are pricey, you're probably better off with organic products. Avoid eating ocean veggies altogether if you're in tropical climes; plants from warm oceans are sometimes infected with cholera bacteria. Once you've got them home, keep sea vegetables perfectly dry in airtight containers and in the dark to preserve their flavour and nutrients. Avoid the fridge or other smelly zones; sea veggies pick up scents easily. It's a good idea to consult some traditional recipes, because when they're not cooked properly, ocean plants are tough to digest. And since they contain significant amounts of sodium, you might want to decrease or eliminate salt in dishes that contain sea plants. Finally, if you've got a thyroid condition, consult your health-care practitioner about using sea vegetables. Their high iodine content means they affect thyroid function, and while sea vegetables may sometimes be just the ticket to better thyroid health, for some they contribute to greater imbalance.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
"Sea vegetables are very important because they have 10 to 20 times the minerals of land plants. They contain 10 times as much calcium as milk per gram. And they actually remove radioactive and toxic metal waste from the body. If someone has low thyroid function, iodine will help. The problem is that if someone is already medicated, it could lead to hyperthyroidism. You need to be monitored if you have thyroid problems and you're using sea vegetables. They contain a lot of vitamin B-12, but it's not usable."
CONNIE PUGLIESE , naturopathic doctor, Thornhill and Richmond Hill
'Sea vegetables are higher in potassium than in sodium. They have a lot of lignans in them, and bind preferentially to estrogen receptor sites, which is really good news for creating hormone balance. They're very rich in iodine and are modulators of the thyroid. One needs to be extremely cautious treating any thyroid condition, and it's important not to self-treat. Sea vegetables have a great effect on tissue repair. You'll have glossy hair, strong nails, beautiful skin. Two tablespoons a week is all you need. Five to 15 grams a day is high. If you were taking that much it would be more for a laxative effect."
DANETTE STEELE , clinical herbalist, Toronto and Halifax
"I highly recommend sea vegetables for most people because they are a high source of trace minerals. The soil in which most of our fruits and vegetables are grown has been depleted over the years. We're seeing more and more people with deficiencies of zinc, copper, manganese, chromium, iodine, selenium, calcium and magnesium. Sea vegetables are high in (these minerals, including) selenium, which helps prevent cancer and heart disease. Iodine may not be appropriate for people with an overactive thyroid, and some people are sensitive to iodine - it gives them acne, so sea vegetables are not right for everybody."
ZOLTAN RONA , MD, MSc, Toronto
"Sea vegetables are the most nutrient-dense food. As well as vitamins and minerals, they contain protein, chlorophyll and essential fatty acids. Use around 2 tablespoons a day. There is a reason why the Japanese use them just as a condiment. Sea vegetables are so rich that taking way too much can oversaturate us. They are definitely proven to prevent glandular disorders because they can get the body to eliminate radioactive iodine."
VIVIAN LEE , registered holistic nutritionist, manager, Canadian School of Natural Nutrition, Toronto
"In Japan, which has one of the lowest rates of obesity and cancer in the developed world, sea vegetables make up about 10 per cent of the diet. Sea vegetables are virtually fat-free, low-calorie, high-protein and packed with important minerals and vitamins. Because of their high sodium content, sea vegetables (especially dried and flaked) can replace salt in soups and broths.'
MARIE FORTIN , registered dietitian/consulting nutritionist, Markham