SEAWEED'S NUTRITIONAL VALUE

Date:2009-05-23

Seaweed draws an extraordinary wealth of mineral elements from the sea that can account for up to 36% of its dry mass. The mineral macronutrients include sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, chlorine, sulfur and phosphorus; the micronutrients include iodine, iron, zinc, copper, selenium, molybdenum, fluoride, manganese, boron, nickel and cobalt.

Seaweed has such a large proportion of iodine compared to dietary minimum requirements, that it is primarily known as a source of this nutrient. The highest iodine content is found in brown algae, with dry kelp ranging from 1500-8000 ppm (parts per million) and dry rockweed (Fucus) from 500-1000 ppm. In most instances, red and green algae have lower contents, about 100-300 ppm in dried seaweeds, but remain high in comparison to any land plants. Daily adult requirements, currently recommended at 150 µg/day, could be covered by very small quantities of seaweed. Just one gram of dried brown algae provides from 500-8,000 µg of iodine and even the green and red algae (such as the purple nori that is used in Japanese cuisine) provides 100-300 µg in a single gram.

The amounts of seaweed ingested as food in Japan, or in supplements, is often considerably more than 1 gram a day. Studies show that the human body adapts readily to higher iodine intake, where the thyroid gland is the main tissue involved in use of iodine (it is a component of thyroid hormones). Huge portions of the world population get insufficient iodine because the land, plants, and animals that serve as common dietary sources are very low in iodine. In many countries, iodine is added to table salt to assure adequate levels are attained. However, some developing countries are still catching up and suffering from the effects of low iodine intake. China is has the largest population with a history of low iodine intake, followed by India.

Aside from iodine, seaweed is one of the richest plant sources of calcium, but its calcium content relative to dietary requirements pales in comparison to the iodine. The calcium content of seaweeds is typically about 4-7% of dry matter. At 7% calcium, one gram of dried seaweed provides 70 mg of calcium, compared to a daily dietary requirement of about 1,000 mg. Still, this is higher than a serving of most non-milk based foods.

Protein content in seaweed varies somewhat. It is low in brown algae at 5-11% of dry matter, but comparable in quantitative terms to legumes at 30-40% of dry matter in some species of red algae. Green algae, which are still not harvested much, also have a significant protein content, i.e., up to 20% of dry matter. Spirulina, a micro-alga, is well known for its very high content, i.e., 70% of dry matter.

Seaweed contains several vitamins. Red and brown algae are rich in carotenes (provitamin A) and are used, in fact, as a source of natural mixed carotenes for dietary supplements. The content ranges from 20-170 ppm. The vitamin C in red and brown algae is also notable, with contents ranging from 500-3000 ppm. Other vitamins are also present, including B12, which is not found in most land plants.

Seaweed has very little fat, ranging from 1-5% of dry matter, although seaweed lipids have a higher proportion of essential fatty acids than land plants. Green algae, whose fatty acid make-up is the closest to higher plants, have a much higher oleic and alpha-linoleic acid content. Red algae have a high EPA content, a substance mostly found in animals, especially fish. Seaweed has a high fiber content, making up 32% to 50% of dry matter. The soluble fiber fraction accounts for 51-56% of total fibers in green (ulvans) and red algae (agars, carrageenans and xylans) and for 67-87% in brown algae (laminaria, fucus, and others). Soluble fibers are generally associated with having cholesterol-lowering and hypoglycemic effects.

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