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Seaweed in Your Diet – what you need to know

seaweed preparation

Because the majority of us haven't been brought up using seaweed as a food, it can seem a daunting task to know how to start. The focus on Asian food has brought us sushi, miso soups & coloured seaweed salad and these usually sum up much pretty much our experience & general knowledge on how seaweed is eaten.

harvesting-irelandYou may be surprised to learn that before WW1 most nations with a coastline ate seaweed to supplement their diet, used it as medicine and also as fodder, building material and fertiliser for the land. It was very much part of everyday life and there are many written accounts of how it was used in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, we - in the West - have forgotten all that with the birth of industrialisation, technology, modern medicine & pharmaceutical products. Our understanding of why we are eating has shifted, and for many, the expression "eat to live" has become "live to eat", a transformation that has in many ways proven detrimental to our health.

It is my opinion that the East, in particular Asian nations, have done a much better job of preserving their  health giving traditions while embracing new technologies in medicine, fertilising, animal feeds and human nutrition. In the West - too often - we tend to throw the baby with the bath water...

Recently, much has been written on the value of having seaweed in the diet , a natural source of the man building blocs required to keep us healthy. Nations like the Japanese, especially people in Okinawa, have been studied for their longevity and the minimal impact of lifestyle diseases growing at exponential rates in populations that have forgotten their roots.

We need to return to nutrient-rich foods in order to give our bodies the material required to keep us healthy. Wholesome foods from the soil is great but is sometime missing in critical elements because of over-cultivation, erosion & lack of proper nourishment. Yet the sea has everything, that is where life started. Sea plants have mechanisms to absorb the nutrients from the sea and concentrate them inside their structure. So provided we get clean seaweed, we stand to nourish ourselves with everything that our body requires.

Things you need to know to get started:

  1. Generally speaking, Seaweed do not need to be cooked: our seaweeds are raw and contain all the nutrients naturally present in the sea. Cooking them reduces their nutritional value because some nutrients (esp'ly enzymes & some vitamins) are affected by heat. Of course this is a generalisation that cannot always be observed. As an example, Kombu is usually heated to make stock, seasonings are often cooked on the food their flavour and Agar needs to be 'melted' in order to engage its jellifying properties. What I mean though, is that every time you can, rehydrate the seaweed in tepid water  (rather than hot) or add it at the end of the cooking, you will preserve lots of nutrients that will nourish your body.
  2. Most seaweed re-hydrate in minutes: only very thick plants like Kombu  or Sea Spaghetti require more time, maybe 30 minutes. It helps to use tepid water instead of cold water. Seaweed will expand 5-10 times upon re-hydration, so take that into consideration when deciding how much to reconstitute. The soaking water is nutritious and should be used in simmering dishes, smoothies & soups or as a complement to other stocks.
    You can change the taste of seaweed by soaking it in a flavourful liquid. The sea-spagetti-dessert-w-kirshseaweed will pick up the flavour as it re-hydrates, soak longer for a stronger flavour. In this winter fruit salad, the Sea Spaghetti is soaked overnight in kirsch or alternatively in a fruit tea, which lends it a sweet flavour!
    Seaweed flakes that are thicker like Dulse or Bladderwrack flakes can be placed in a sieve and rinsed under the tap for a few seconds to soften them and add a little moisture that may preserve the integrity of the recipe you are adding them to. What I mean is that - seaweed is hygroscopic - if you are adding seaweed flakes to a pesto for example, the dry seaweed will tend to absorb all the moisture from the surrounding ingredients and leave your pesto a little dry. To prevent this sprinkle your flakes with a little water before hand. If you're adding the flakes to a soup, this step is probably not necessary.
    Seaweed’s shelf-life is short after re-hydration: seaweed conserve for years when kept dry & away from light.  clean salt water so to not leech any of their nutrients. The complex salts  that are part of their make-up act as natural preservatives and keep bugs & fungus away. When rehydrating seaweed, it is best to reconstitute only what is immediately needed as their shelf-life is very short in their fresh state. Remember that different plants will expand at different rate so it helps to be conservative the first time you reconstitute them.
  3. Seaweed recover their original texture upon re-hydration: unlike land plants, seaweed have a mechanism that allows them to recover their original texture from their dried state (if they have been dried naturally). This is because in nature, that is exactly what happens: many seaweeds are exposed at low tide and dry out somewhat under the sun but totally recover when the tide comes up! Keeping seaweed dry naturally prolongs their shelf life without compromising their culinary value. It has been my experience that this may not always be true for seaweed that have been dried artificially, something may have been disturbed or transformed.
  4. Seaweed 'taste salty' because of the abundance of minerals they contain: The recent focus on salt as the culprit for many health conditions has made us conscious of how much of it we are eating. Although Natural Sea Salt is much better for you, it is still salt, i.e. 95% sodium! The craving for salt is often the body's craving for minerals, other minerals than sodium. All seaweeds have some amount of sodium but far less than salt. Also seaweed’s sodium content is kept in balance with potassium which is the way our body needs it. All minerals taste 'salty' not just sodium, so most of the time, when seaweed 'tastes salty', you are really tasting the abundance of other minerals (calcium, magnesium, potassium etc...60+ of them!) and some of the amino-acids. Glutamic Acid - Umami- also has a somewhat salty taste to some, but it's no salt! Brown seaweeds are higher in sodium than Red or Green Seaweed, but still a fraction of what there is in salt. To decrease the sodium content, simply rinse or soak for a few minutes.
  5. Seaweeds come in a variety of colours, textures & tastes and have unique nutritional profiles.
    understanding their unique culinary & wellness qualities is important to achieve success at the table and with your health.
    Read about HOW TO GET STARTED and see the table below to find out more about how  red, brown & green seaweeds  support your health:
    health-benefits

Disclaimer: This material is provided for educational purposes only and IS NOT intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This information is generic and should be verified by a qualified health practitioner for specific and individual needs & requirements.

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