Is Kelp the Next Miracle Food?

Have you ever tasted kelp? If not, you may be missing out. Kelp has been a popular staple in Asian diets for several centuries –now Americans are becoming curious. It's becoming increasingly popular due to its several health benefits and its delicious taste.

Key takeaways:
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    Consuming a kelp-rich diet can affect health conditions, such as thyroid disease (thanks to iron) and diabetes (type 1 and 2).
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    Eating more kelp can help the environment, as it is sustainably sourced.
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    Eating kelp can aid in weight loss because it’s packed with vitamins and minerals, and extremely low in calories compared to alternatives.

We have everything you need to know about kelp, its nutritional information, how to incorporate it into your diet, and who should avoid eating it.

What are edible sea greens?

Sea greens or sea vegetables are plants and algae foods grown near or in the ocean. As long as they are prepared and cooked properly, most sea greens are edible and very nutritious. A few of the most common edible plants found are algae, seaweed, dulse, Salicornia, nori, and kelp.

For a good reason, kelp is one of the most well-known sea greens in the ocean. It's the fastest-growing plant in the ocean; it grows up to as much as two feet per day. Kelp is classified as a brown seaweed (although it has dark green fonds), and it typically grows in areas with shallow saltwater near coastal areas all over the world.

While kelp may be unfamiliar to most Americans, the Japanese and Chinese have used salty seaweed for thousands of years. Even today, kelp is an essential food in Japan's cuisine. Luckily, Americans are taking on the opportunity to expand their palates in the last few decades, eating more than just burgers and pizza. Over the last few years, a large portion of trending foods has come from Asian culture. As a result, more consumers are experiencing the wonders of sea greens and, more specifically, kelp.

Nutritional benefits of kelp

Because of its versatility and health benefits, kelp is typically used in sushi, sauces, salads, soups, seasoning, and other products.

Kelp is high in iodine, calcium, sulfur, iron, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins A, D, E, and B complex. Because the iodine in kelp is so high, it helps support the production of thyroid hormones. Kelp also contains a complex long-chain carbohydrate called Fucoidan, which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

The nutritional information for 100 grams of raw kelp, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA):

  • 43 calories;
  • 1.7 grams protein;
  • <1 gram of fat;
  • 9.5 grams carbohydrate;
  • ~1 gram of fiber;
  • 168 milligrams calcium;
  • 121 milligrams magnesium;
  • 180 micrograms folate.

Supports bone health

While we think of dairy products and leafy greens to strengthen and maintain our bone health, we fail to acknowledge that kelp is an essential source of bone health. Vitamin K is important for bone metabolism and works with calcium and vitamin D to help maintain bone health. Kelp is an excellent source of calcium, iron, and vitamins K, A, and B12. So, if you're looking for a greens supplement that's easy to incorporate into your diet, try adding some kelp powder to smoothies, salads, or other foods that you might not think are a good match for seaweed!

Maintains healthy blood sugar levels

A 2015 study looked at Potential Bioactive Compounds from Seaweed for Diabetes Management. The results showed that "Seaweed dietary fibers were shown to improve post-prandial satiety feeling, decreased short-term energy intake, reduction of blood glucose levels and improved insulin sensitivity." Not only does it reduce blood glucose levels, but it was also shown to help reduce body weight, which helps decrease the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Vanadium is a trace mineral that can also help with blood sugar and is naturally found in kelp. The human body needs only small amounts of vanadium to help maintain healthy blood glucose levels over time. In fact, according to one study, the daily recommended intake of vanadium was shown to help maintain healthy blood glucose levels in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus.

The study found that in doses ranging from 0.083 mmol/d to 0.42 mmol/d, vanadium had shown therapeutic potential in clinical studies with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) and noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) type.

Regulates thyroid function

The thyroid gland's responsibility is to make hormones that produce heat and can speed up your metabolism, which causes you to burn more calories than usual. Consuming iodine can help thyroid hormones work properly, especially if you don't get enough from other sources like the foods you eat. One of the best iodine sources is kelp.

The NIH points out that many people don't consume enough iodine, so it's recommended that adults consume 150 micrograms a day. This can be difficult to achieve, but foods high in iodine (like kelp!) can help you reach these recommendations without having to take supplements.

Getting kelp in your diet

Unfortunately, 98% of the seaweed that Americans consume has to be imported from Asia, requiring a dehydrating and rehydrating process (and includes dyes). For a food with an endless list of health benefits, it almost defeats the purpose if unnatural ingredients are added.

Most Americans have limited knowledge of kelp and other types of seaweed. When we think of kelp or seaweed, the first thing that pops into our heads is what we find at the beach. Zoe Croft, Atlantic Sea Farm's director of sales, shuts this down immediately. Kelp is grown in the 'clean and cold waters of Maine' during the first few months of the year.

If you’re looking for other ways to add kelp to your diet, here are a few options:

  • Akua Kelp Burger.
  • Barnacle Foods Kelp Pickles.
  • Boonville Barn Golden State Seasoning.
  • Sea Tangle Kelp Noodles.
  • Kelp Kimchi.
  • Frozen Shredded and Blanched Kelp.
  • Kelp Smoothie Cubes.

How much kelp is “too much,” and who should avoid kelp altogether?

Although it seems like kelp cannot harm you, too much of anything is not good for you, and for some individuals, a doctor may even recommend staying away from kelp to be on the safe side. For those who are concerned if kelp is safe for them to eat, check to see if you have any of the following conditions:

Thyroid condition

One of the biggest health concerns to watch out for is hyperthyroidism (increased thyroid function) or hypothyroidism (decreased thyroid function). Because kelp contains such a high amount of iodine, consuming too much kelp can cause these conditions or worsen the effects.

Heavy metals

While it is likely a minimal amount (if there is even anything at all), be aware that kelp has the potential to contain heavy metals. It's not enough to harm you, but ocean water can be contaminated with cadmium, aluminum, and lead.

Pregnant or breastfeeding

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid kelp due to the potential arsenic and high levels of iodine

Heart medications

Unspecific to the exact medications, the University of Rochester medical center recommends avoiding kelp if you're currently on certain heart medications.

If you're unsure, it's best to check with your primary doctor before making any changes to your diet.

Can you have a seaweed allergy?

No – seaweed provides the opposite benefit. According to research from the American Chemical Society's Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, certain seaweeds contain polysaccharides with anti-asthmatic and anti-allergy effects. Because it has so many healing properties within, they're a top source for nourishing and healing skin irritants.

While there is no seaweed allergy, there is Stinging Seaweed Disease, a skin irritation caused by direct exposure to toxin-producing algae named Lyngbya majuscula. Symptoms can resemble an allergic reaction, such as swelling, itching, and blistering. It's a blue-green algae found in certain tropical zones along the shoreline of Hawaii. Unless you live in Hawaii and are uneducated about the algae in the water, you have nothing to worry about.

Can you eat seaweed if you have a seafood allergy?

Yep! The allergen in seafood comes from its protein, which has no connection to seaweed. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, the protein found in the flesh of fish and other seafood is what causes the allergic reaction. As you consume seafood, your immune system sees the protein as a danger and begins to attack the body, causing the reaction. While you should be careful of any cross-contamination that might occur (at a sushi restaurant, for example), the seaweed itself is perfectly fine to eat.

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