This superfood is good for you and the planet

(CNN) — When most of us read the words “plant-based diet,” we tend to think of foods like kale salads and bowls of cereal or trendy meat substitutes. But there is a non-meat option that is gaining popularity as a new superfood: algae.

Algae, yes, the brownish-green ribbons of oceanic plant matter that appear on beaches, are edible. Nori, the sheets of paper used to wrap sushi rolls and as a garnish for ramen bowls, is probably the best known and most enjoyed seaweed, but these large, leafy seaweeds come in hundreds of colorful varieties, including wakame , kombu, red dulse and sugar kelp.

Algae help support other forms of marine life and clean the water around them. Outside the water, they can provide more nutrients and minerals to our diet.

“Even though we try to eat healthy, most of the time we rely on land-based farming,” says Sarah Redmond, founder and owner of Springtide Seaweed, in Gouldsboro, Maine. “Algae are a really interesting alternative because they provide those nutrients that are really hard to find in other land plants.”

With several companies bringing algae-based foods to market, it’s getting easier to savor the sea. Here we tell you why we can all benefit from consuming algae.

Good for humans and the environment

For humans, algae are a unique choice for our crucial nutrient needs. “Seaweed is an excellent source of dietary fiber and minerals,” says Mary Ellen Camire, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine.

Although the nutritional profiles vary slightly between green, brown, and red varieties, in general seaweed contains a number of vitamins, including B, C, E, and K, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, amino acids, polyphenols, and 10 times more minerals than land plants, according to a recent study. Among these essential minerals are iron, calcium and iodine.

“Algae have the ability to concentrate in the ocean all the trace elements that we cannot access,” explains Redmond. “They are a kind of balancing food with which we can return some of these trace elements to our body and to our diet.”

And when used as fertilizers for terrestrial agriculture, algae can return those essential nutrients to the soil, improving its health.

Seaweed is a wholesome option for crucial nutritional needs. Wakame seaweed also adds flavor to miso soup.

However, it is not necessary to overcrowd the plate with algae because they can absorb large amounts of minerals. “Some brown algae, like sugar kelp grown in New England, are very high in iodine,” explains Camire. “They have so much iodine that consumers are advised not to eat them more than three times a week.”

Since the concentration of specific nutrients in algae can interact with various medications, it’s important to consult your doctor if you have thyroid disease or take blood thinners before introducing them to your diet.

Algae are as beneficial to water systems as they are to our personal health. Carbon capture may be the buzzword in the fight to mitigate the climate crisis, but algae have been doing it naturally all this time. “The algae extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and use it to produce more carbohydrates,” explains Camire. “We’re not sure how much algae farming it would take to have a significant effect on global warming, but it helps.”

Algae also function as a component of regenerative aquaculture by consuming nitrogen and phosphorous, two elements that can harm the ocean when present in large quantities. “Algae also provide a place for smaller marine creatures to hide from predators,” establishing refuge environments that can help restore the diversity of marine life in overexploited habitats, Camire said.

And even better: they don’t need fertilizers or pesticides to grow in the ocean, whether they’re grown there or harvested from the wild.

How to add seaweed to your daily meals

Okay, now you can be convinced that algae is worth trying. But it is not about going out to sea to look for them. Make sure the algae products you buy are certified organic or have been tested for heavy metal content, Camire says, because “some types of algae are more likely to have heavy metals like cadmium, lead and arsenic “.

Aside from eating lots of temaki rolls and seaweed snacks or adding more nori sheets to your ramen, there are several ways to incorporate edible seaweed into your routine.

algae superfood

Sushi rolls are wrapped in sheets of paper called nori. Here, wakame adorns the tops of sushi rolls.

Springtide Seaweed dries the seaweed in the open air and grinds it into a powder to make seasonings like Italian kelp and Red Bay seasoning, which can be sprinkled on everything from popcorn to garlic bread. Add dried seaweed ribbons to soups, stews, or any dish that sautés kale and other leafy greens. “We try to put the algae in a form that is easy to use and incorporate into the diet,” says Redmond.

Do you want seaweed for breakfast? Atlantic Sea Farms, another Maine seaweed producer, incorporates the seaweed into frozen smoothie cubes along with antioxidant-rich fruits like cranberries and blueberries. If you’re feeling in the mood for something spicy, try their seaweed-based kimchi. To turn up the heat, add some Barnacle Foods Seaweed Hot Sauce from Alaska.

Or if you prefer grilled seaweed, Akua makes burgers from seaweed and ground seaweed, which can be made into meatballs, used in tacos, or anywhere else you’d normally use ground beef.

Seaweed can even satisfy a sweet tooth in the form of seaweed chocolate bars (alone or with chips) or by making your own powdered seaweed chocolate chip cookies.

— Casey Barber is a food writer, artist, and editor of the Good website. Food. Stories.