Why would anyone want to eat sea vegetables? Because they offer one of the broadest ranges of minerals of any food, containing virtually all the minerals found in the ocean—and not surprisingly, many of same minerals found in human blood. The also offer a variety of unique phytonutrients, including their sulfated polysaccharides (also called fucoidans). Unlike some other categories of vegetables, sea vegetables do not appear to depend on carotenoids and flavonoids for their antioxidant benefits,
because in additional to these two important categories of antioxidants, sea vegetables contain several other types, including alkaloid antioxidants.
Sea vegetables are an excellent source of iodine, vitamin C, manganese, and vitamin B2. They are also a very good source of vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids) and copper as well as a good source of protein, pantothenic acid, potassium, iron, zinc, vitamin B6, niacin, phosphorus, and vitamin B1.
- Sea vegetables may be a better source of bioavailable iron than previously thought. One tablespoon of dried sea vegetable will contain between 1/2 milligram and 35 milligrams of iron, and this iron is also accompanied by a measurable amount vitamin C. Since vitamin C acts to increase the bioavailability of plant iron, this combination in sea vegetables may offer a special benefit.
- Brown algae (including the commonly eaten sea vegetables kombu/kelp, wakame, and arame may be unique among the sea vegetables in their iodine content. Some species from the brown algae genus Laminaria are able to accumulate iodine in up to 30,000 times more concentrated a form than sea water!
- Sea vegetables may be a unique food source not only of the mineral iodine, but also of the mineral vanadium. As part of their natural defense mechanisms, sea vegetables contain a variety of enzymes called haloperoxidases. These enzymes all require vanadium in order to function. Although this mineral is not as well known as some of the other mineral nutrients, it appears to play a multi-faceted role in regulation of carbohydrate metabolism and blood sugar. While research in this area is still in the preliminary stage and remains mixed in terms of results, vanadium may help to increase our body’s sensitivity to insulin by inhibiting a group of enzymes called protein tyrosine phosphatases. It may also help us decrease our body’s production of glucose and help us increase our body’s ability to store starch in the form of glycogen.
- Unlike some other types of vegetables, sea vegetables do not appear to depend on common polyphenol antioxidants (like carotenoids and flavonoids) for their total antioxidant capacity. Recent research from India makes it clear that a variety of non-flavonoid and non-carotenoid antioxidant compounds are present in sea vegetables, including several different types of antioxidant alkaloids.
- Sea vegetables may play a role in lowering risk of estrogen-related cancers, including breast cancer. Since cholesterol is required as a building block for production of estrogen, the cholesterol-lowering effects of sea vegetables may play a risk-reducing role in this regard. However, more interesting with respect to breast cancer risk is the apparent ability of sea vegetables to modify aspects of a woman’s normal menstrual cycle in such a way that over a lifetime, the total cumulative estrogen secretion that occurs during the follicular phase of the cycle gets decreased. For women who are at risk of estrogen-sensitive breast cancers, sea vegetables may bring a special benefit in this regard.
- An increasing number of health benefits from sea vegetables are being explained by their fucoidan concent. Fucoidans are starch-like (polysaccharide) molecules, but they are unique in their complicated structure (which involves a high degree of branching) and their sulfur content. Numerous studies have documented the anti-inflammatory benefits of fucoidans (sometimes referred to as sulfated polysaccharides), and osteoarthritis has been an area of specific interest for these anti-inflammatory benefits. The sulfated polysaccharides in sea vegetables also have anti-viral activity and have been studied in relationship to herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2). By blocking the binding sites used by HSV-1 and HSV-2 for cell attachment, sulfated polysaccharides help prevent replication of these viruses. The sulfated polysaccharides in sea vegetables also have important anticoagulant and antithrombotic properties that bring valuable cardiovascular benefits.
While the broad range of minerals provided by sea vegetables make them a great addition to your Healthiest Way of Eating, Westerners are often not quite sure how to add more of these nutrient-rich foods to their meals. One easy way is to keep a container of kelp flakes on the dinner table and use it instead of table salt for seasoning foods. You can also experiment with adding your favorite sea vegetable to vegetable dishes, salads, and miso soups. They are easy to add to dishes as they require no cooking. It is recommended to include 1 tsp of sea vegetables to your Healthiest Way of Eating each day.
Sea vegetables provide numerous health benefits including:
- Anti-inflammatory benefits
- Antioxidant benefits
- Antiviral benefits
- Antithrombotic benefits