Seaweed has been conquering health food menus worldwide for quite some time. But why is it so popular – and is organic seaweed better? If the nutritional value of a food product depended on how long it has existed, seaweed would be invincible: Besides bacteria, it is among the oldest forms of life on Earth. And it played a major role in making our planet habitable: With its superpower, photosynthesis, seaweed has been enriching the oceans and the Earth’s atmosphere with oxygen for billions of years. Still today, it produces half of the oxygen we inhale, whilst efficiently capturing CO2. In addition, nutritional analysis prove that seaweed is rich in vitamins, minerals, protein, and fibre – but low in calories. Many good reasons to have a closer look at the slimy treasure from the sea.

alimentos del mar
123rfLimited©karsol. Makizushi sushi and wasabi maki

What does seaweed taste like?

Seaweed is usually available in dried flakes or strips. As such, it is easy to transport and has a relatively long shelf live. Green seaweed such as sea lettuce is often served raw and tastes a bit like sorrel. The Asian red seaweed nori, which some may know as the dark mats that keeps sushi together, can also serve as a topping for salads or soups. Its European counterpart, the dulse, sets pretty, purple-coloured accents to any salty dish. Uncooked, it is a delicious snack; roasted, it unfolds a slightly nutty aroma. Among the brown seaweed, the mild-sweet Arame is a good start for newbies. Stronger in taste and as a salad crispy and green, is Wakame, which is also one of the key ingredients of miso soups. Sea spaghettis have a slightly spicy, bean-like taste. And the black hijiki surprises with an intense fish aroma and a delicate anise note.

Extensive soaking and washing can already significantly reduce its iodine content

Is seaweed always healthy?

Despite being hyped as a health-food, seaweed should only be consumed with prudence. Especially brown seaweed can contain a lot of iodine. Too high amounts of this micronutrient can disturb the thyroid gland function and lead to palpitation, hypertension, and nervousness. According to the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, a daily intake of 500 micrograms of iodine is safe. Other institutes, such as the German Nutrition Society, recommend consuming no more than 200 micrograms per day. Since the iodine content of dried seaweed can vary drastically between five and 11,000 micrograms per gram, it is important to only buy products which clearly provide information about their iodine content and maximum consumption. People who use seaweed consciously as a source of iodine should adhere to the preparation recommendations: extensive soaking and washing can already significantly reduce its iodine content. Besides its health benefits, seaweed can also contain environmental toxins. Depending on where it grows, it can filter pollutants and heavy metals such lead, cadmium, or mercury from the seawater. To avoid these substances from ending up on our plates, good water quality and extensive quality analyses are particularly important.

With its superpower, photosynthesis, seaweed has been enriching the oceans and the Earth’s atmosphere with oxygen for billions of years

Is organic seaweed better?

Due to its increasing popularity as a food item, only a small percentage of seaweed still comes from wild collection. Most seaweed is cultivated in coastal areas on ropes or nets. All it needs to thrive is light, carbon dioxide and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Hence, it is an ideal eco-product that requires no use of chemicals. So, what is so different about organic seaweed? Unfortunately, the rising demand for seaweed has led to an increasing number of products of doubtful quality. In some areas, too much seaweed is harvested, which is why the populations cannot recover. Seaweed producers complying with the EU organic rules on wild collection and cultivation of seaweed reduce both health hazards and damage to marine ecosystems.

The criteria of the organic association Naturland are even more stringent: not only do they include clear specifications on water quality and harvesting techniques, but they cover social aspects as well. Naturland certified seaweed is currently harvested in France and Spain.

Author: Ina Hiester, freelance journalist for the organic sector

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