Should You Be Snacking on Seaweed?

That’s the question you may be asking yourself as this hot new food trend makes its way to a supermarket shelf near you. And manufacturers are hoping your answer will be yes.

Of course, what we call “seaweed” isn’t actually a weed at all, but rather a variety of nutrient-dense macroalgae, with names like wakame (used in miso soup), kombu, nori (used to wrap sushi) and more. And while you may associate seaweed with something you peel off your legs after an ocean swim rather than something you serve at the dinner table, seaweed is making waves in the world of superfoods because of its potential health and weight-loss benefits.

Seaweed grows by floating in a rich sea of minerals in the ocean, so it boasts an impressive nutrient profile.  Along with a host of vitamins (including vitamins A, B12  and C), seaweed is the earth’s best source of iodine, a trace mineral that is is an essential component of thyroid hormones (T3 and T4). Thyroid hormones play a key role in your body’s metabolic activity, and while levels can vary quite a bit, consider that just a half-ounce of dried seaweed can provide around 300% of the RDA for iodine – in some cases, more than 1000%. To boot, many seaweeds contain all nine essential amino acids the body needs, making it a source of high quality protein. And seaweed also is rich in fiber but very low in calories (a half-cup of kelp has a scant 17 calories), making it a popular food to help with weight control.

Then there’s the potential heart health benefits. A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry looked at evidence from 100 other studies, and found that a class of proteins in seaweed, known as bioactive peptides, can reduce blood pressure almost as much as the widely prescribed ACE inhibitor drugs, making it a promising food to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes. And researchers in Ireland and Canada are investigating its ability to reduce the risk of heart disease, as seaweed contains a number of heart-healthy compounds that may reduce blood clotting and hardening of the arteries.

So, should you add this new superfood to your list? While some of the marketing hype may be ahead of the science in terms of the total benefits you can reap, if you like the idea and can fit it into your food budget, seaweed’s nutritional prowess certainly can’t hurt, and may make a fun and tasty addition to your diet. Plus, it’s one more reason to opt for sushi rolls next time you’re searching for a snack at the mini mall, or to order a seaweed side salad the next time you see one on a menu (or in a supermarket salad bar, where they are also popping up more regularly).

If you crave crunch, increasingly popular seaweed snack packs are apt to be a wiser choice than, say, a bag of potato chips. But remember that more powerful than looking to any one superfood as a silver bullet to fix your diet,  it’s your overall eating pattern that’s most important for weight control and longevity. That pattern should ideally include several cups of a variety of vegetables each day – sea green and otherwise.