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An appeal for kelp

Posted Jan 08 2010 12:00am
Unless you're a sushi fan, you might flinch at the idea of eating seaweed.

But guess what: you probably consume seaweed every day without knowing it.

Countless food products and toiletries include thickeners derived from kelp, the common seaweed that washes up on beaches all over New England, although industrial kelp is produced mainly on huge farms in China.

Check the ingredients list on your yogurt or toothpaste: if you see carageenan, agar, or alginate, chances are the product contains seaweed.

The truth is, kelp and other sea vegetables (some people prefer this term to “seaweed”) are extremely nutritious. Most varieties contain significant amounts of calcium, iron, and iodine, a vital mineral that’s difficult to find elsewhere in the American diet. Some studies show that sea vegetables have the same ability to bind to toxins in the digestive tract as they do in the marine environment, thus removing them from our bodies.

You can buy dried kelp and other types of seaweed, including kombu, nori, wakame, alaria, dulse, and hijiki, in health food stores and large supermarkets. A few companies have also begun offering fresh seaweed for use in salads and other raw dishes, but I haven’t yet found it in my area.

I steer clear of seaweed produced in China and choose brands harvested from the relatively unpolluted waters off the coast of Maine (read the package; it should tell you). I chop the seaweed into small pieces and throw it into vegetable soups and stews, where its presence goes completely unnoticed. Just make sure to add it at the beginning of the cooking process, so it has a chance to re-hydrate.

If you cook your own beans from scratch, adding a small piece of dried seaweed helps them tenderize faster (I’m not sure why this works, but it does).

Do you often crave salty foods like potato chips and pretzels? Your body may be asking for minerals. Look for dried kelp flakes in the Asian foods aisle of your grocery store. They come in shaker containers, so you can sprinkle them on your food just like salt. I always add a pinch of kelp flakes to homemade salad dressings. No, they don’t taste fishy. In fact, the flavor of seaweed is subtle and, as I mentioned above, easily camouflaged among other ingredients.

Who knows: you could even acquire a taste for sea vegetables. On vacation recently, I found locally harvested dried seaweed being sold as a snack at a farmer’s market. It was crunchy, delicious, and quite addictive!
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