Jamie Oliver has attributed his weight loss to seaweed, calling it “the most nutritious vegetable in the world”.
And he is not alone in believing so – seaweed is fast becoming the greatest trend in food since Oliver brought the word “pukka” into common parlance.
“Seaweed has many health benefits and there’s been a huge increase in demand,” says Ruth Dronfield, managing director of Atlantic Kitchen, whose edible seaweed products are stocked in more than 150 UK stores.
“Chefs are using it a great deal more on their menus, and it’s perfect for consumers looking for local, healthy and nourishing natural foods.”
“Seaweeds are basically marine algae,” says Ruth. There are thought to be more than 11 000 species globally, with around 400 in the coastal waters of the UK.
People have made use of it for centuries: the Romans applied it to treat wounds, and it’s been eaten by the Japanese for more than 2 000 years. Japan and China consume more than 170 000 tons of it per year.
Low in carbohydrates and calories, seaweed could help you on the way to a slender figure.
There is a natural fibre in sea kelp called alginate, which inhibits the enzymes that digest fat, so less is absorbed by the body.
In a 2014 study at Newcastle University, alginate was added to bread which patients ate along with a carefully recorded diet, and their overall fat absorption was measured.
Researchers found that even a small amount of alginate reduced fat absorption by a third.
Results from further tests suggested that alginate could reduce the amount of fat absorbed by the body by around 75 percent.
Another weight-loss ingredient is fucoxanthin, a pigment found in brown seaweed. Emerging research suggests it could burn fat, and help to slow its production.
Seaweed can also make you feel fuller without eating more calories. “As well as being low-calorie and high-fibre, seaweed rehydrates and swells in the stomach, which makes you feel fuller,” says Ashley Jones, of Selwyn’s Seaweed in Swansea.
The shop has made the Welsh delicacy Laverbread, boiled local seaweed, for many years.
Now, it has branched out into roasted seaweed crisps, which have just four calories per pack.
“Lots of us are deficient in iodine, especially women,” says nutritionist Christine Bailey. “It is used by your thyroid gland to help regulate metabolism and the development of both skeleton and brain, among other things.
“We store iodine in the breasts – the bigger the breasts, the higher your daily requirement is likely to be. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 150 mcg a day, but it is thought that half of us are consuming less than 130 mcg.
“Key sources of iodine are fish, shellfish and seaweed, which is jam-packed with the stuff. A sprinkling every day supports the thyroid hormones, which play a key role in metabolism. The more efficient your metabolism, the more effectively you’re burning food.”
“Not only is seaweed high in iron, it is also rich in Vitamin C, which helps your body absorb iron,” says Christine Bailey.
“Different types have different iron levels, and it depends on whether you have it fresh or dried. Sea lettuce has 5.3 mg per 100g when fresh, but this is multiplied by ten when it’s dried.”
Iron helps to make red blood cells, without which we can suffer fatigue and poor immune response. The RDA for men is 8.7 mg and 14.8 mg for menstruating women.
“The high fibre content is good for maintaining cholesterol levels – and chemicals in seaweed called polysaccharides have anti-coagulant properties,” says Christine Bailey.
“This means they decrease the tendency of blood to form dangerous clots.” Seaweed is also a good source of potassium, which may help to prevent high blood pressure.
It works on both the inside and the outside. “Seaweed not only cleanses the skin, but also repairs and revitalises it,” says Margo Marrone, of The Organic Pharmacy.
“It contains healing zinc, soothing and cleansing magnesium, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory chlorophyll, and omega fatty acids, which deeply nourish.”
“Seaweeds are vegetables, and different types behave in different ways when cooked,” says Ruth Dronfield.
“For example, dulse is a natural flavour enhancer, with a rich savoury taste that boosts dishes such as risotto.
“Or there is sea spaghetti – nature’s pasta. It looks like spaghetti and you cook it in the same way. We recommend you use wakame seaweed in the same way as spinach. Throw it in warm water to hydrate, then add it to soups, salads and smoothies.”
Dried seaweed is now widely available in supermarkets, Tesco even sells fresh seaweed.
Another good source is specialist websites such as justseaweed.com, a company on the Isle of Bute, off the west coast of Scotland, which sells fresh nori, sea sprigs and bladderwrack for as little as £4 (about R70) a bag.
“It’s just me picking it up from the shores daily,” says owner Iain McKellar. And there’s nothing to stop you harvesting your own from the nearest shoreline, too – but make sure you know what you’re doing.
“Some have suspect chemicals in them and aren’t recommended for human consumption,” warns Marcus Harrison, of foraging website wildfoodschool.co.uk.