The past few years has been extremely popular in the realm of discovering new healthy foods. One that has been around for generations in the east, in particular, is the various types of seaweed which have been blowing up the internet and our dinner plate. Along with these saltwater plants comes a different type of plant that is found mainly in freshwater sources; algae, which has become the newest superfood in the west. Are these aquatic plants really as healthy as they appear in popular media or are they the next overblown diet trend that will fizzle out in a few years? Luckily for those buying into this craze, most of these plants are indeed healthy, with some delivering a plethora of vitamins and minerals, others having potent antioxidant properties, and some having possible fat burning benefits. In this article, we are going to talk about the many types of seaweed and algae that are becoming popular as well as who should be consuming which.
Types of Seaweed & Algae
With hundreds of varieties, I am going to cover a few of the most researched aquatic plants and their health benefits:
This Asian seaweed is probably the best known in the west for being used to wrap sushi. It is a type of red seaweed despite its blackish green appearance. Nori is a very good source of B12, which is a very important vitamin that keeps your nerves and blood cells functioning properly. Getting enough B12 won’t result in any noticeable benefits, it’s only when an individual is deficient that they will notice fatigue, heart palpitations, constipation, vision loss and nerve dysfunction.
While most don’t need to worry about developing a deficiency, vegans and vegetarians should consider adding some nori to their diet as they are at an increased risk of not getting enough B12. Beyond this, nori is a very good source of many other vitamins such as vitamin A, zinc, copper, manganese, iron and selenium. Lastly, nori is a very good source of omega-3 fatty acids (50% of nori fatty acid content is EPA), which is a very important fat for joint health, heart health, cholesterol levels, blood pressure levels and more. It is recommended that anyone who would like to get more vitamins or healthy fats in their diet should eat a few grams of nori a week whether it be sprinkled in a salad or around your sushi.
These green algae have gained an increase in popularity in the past few years and for good reason. Besides also being a good source of iodine, iron, vitamin C, vitamin A, calcium, and magnesium, these algae are unique in a few ways. By weight, spirulina is one of the most protein dense plants in existence at 50% to 60%. Beyond its nutritional facts, spirulina can assist in lipid and glucose metabolism as well as lowering liver fat, which can be extremely helpful for diabetics and overweight individuals.
The main bioactive compound found in spirulina is known as phycocyanobilin and by inhibiting an enzyme known as NADPH (or Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide Phosphate), it can provide various antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Five grams of spirulina in a shake will provide all of its benefits and a big boost of vitamins, but caution should be taken as it isn’t a pleasant taste. If you can mix it with ingredients such as fresh fruit and protein powder it is possible to mask the flavor, but if it is still too much than finding spirulina pills might be the best route to take.
This is a type of seaweed that you might find at your local beach as it is plentiful in both the Atlantic and Pacific ocean. Besides being a great source of iodine, this brown seaweed has a very unique compound that might actually help with long term weight loss. Known as L-fucose, these compounds found in certain seaweeds have been proposed to be everything from anti-inflammatory, to anticarcinogenic, to antiviral and antioxidant. When it comes to weight loss though, a certain compound known as fucoxanthin (the pigment that makes some seaweeds brown) has been shown to help slightly. By increasing the activity of UCP1 (Uncoupling Protein 1) in white fat (adipose) tissue, it can indirectly increase the metabolism and help individuals lose weight.
The one downside we know of though is a type of delayed effect that occurs. Unlike other metabolism increasing compounds, fucoxanthin is stored in fat cells and can take anywhere from a month to three months to start taking effect. All this means is that you will not gain any benefit from consuming this compound unless you do so daily for months at a time. Bladderwrack isn’t a very good seaweed to eat by itself so it might be wise to invest in tablets that contain bladderwrack or simply fucoxanthin. Lastly, since fucoxanthin is taken up into fat cells it needs to be consumed with some kind of dietary fat, whether that be a fish oil pill, a glass of milk or a whole meal.
This plant lives right alongside Spirulina as fresh water algae and is just as nutrient dense. Besides containing more than our daily required amount of vitamin A, riboflavin, iron and zinc, this algae is also close to 60% protein by weight. Beyond Chlorella’s nutritional facts that are already impressive, it might also be helpful for detoxifying the body from heavy metals. Surprisingly, chlorella can also be used in cancer patients who go through chemotherapy to lessen some side effects.
The high levels of chlorophyll have been shown to decrease the damage from UV exposure as well as rid radioactive particles from the body. For a much broader audience, chlorella can help increase the immune system and protect against oxidative stress. Chlorella should not be used for more than basic health instead of practical medicine without a doctor’s recommendation. With that being said, this algae is much like spirulina as can be consumed in powder form or in tablet form depending on your preference and reason for eating it.
Take Home Message
As you can see, the hype for seaweed and algae is justified! More often than not these aquatic plants are extremely nutrient dense and have various unexpected benefits above practical macro/micronutrient profiles. While I did cover some of the most popular edible water based plants, many others exist and should be researched further if you are interested to learn more. Thank you for reading and I hope you have learned something useful in this article!