You’ve likely chewed on seaweed wrapped around a sushi roll, but few Westerners would consider picking up a bag of the stuff at the grocery store. It might be time for a change: Seaweed is filled with antioxidants, calcium, and a broad range of vitamins, but that doesn’t begin to scratch the slippery brown surface of this fascinating food.

Why It’s Super

A member of the algae family, edible seaweed typically comes in three varieties: brown, red, and green. The most commonly eaten (and researched) are the brown varieties such as kelp and wakame, followed by red seaweed, which includes nori (yep — that’s what most sushi chefs use).

While seaweed-based cuisine has a proud history in many Asian countries, Japan has made it into an art form, employing over twenty different species in their fare. In a restaurant, you’re most likely to consume seaweed in a small kelp (kombu) salad, simmered into miso soup, or wrapped around a sushi roll.

At just two tablespoons per serving, it’s true that seaweed isn’t a realistic source of many vitamins, and its benefits can occasionally be exaggerated. Seaweed contains vitamins A and C, and is also a source of calcium, which is one of the reasons some red seaweed supplements are included as part of some treatment plans for osteoarthritisEffects of seaweed supplementation on blood glucose concentration, lipid profile, and antioxidant enzyme activities in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus. Kim, J.Y., Kim, M.S., et al. The Korean Nutrition Society and The Korean Society of Community Nutrition. Nutrition Research and Practice, 2008 Summer; 2(2): 62-67.A natural seaweed derived mineral supplement (Aquamin F) for knee osteoarthritis: A randomised, placebo controlled pilot study. Frestedt, J.L., Kuskowski, MA. et al. Nutrition Journal, 2009; 8(7).. However, serving sizes are often not large enough to get a decent boost in these nutrients.

Seaweed’s best-known benefit is that it is an extraordinary source of a nutrient missing in almost every other food: iodineIodide accumulation provides kelp with an inorganic antioxidant impacting atmospheric chemistry. Frithjof C.K., Carpenter, L.J. et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science U.S.A., 2008 May 13; 105(19): 6954-6958.. Consuming healthy levels of iodine is critically important to maintaining a healthy thyroid, a gland in your neck which helps produce and regulate hormones. A malfunctioning thyroid can result in a wide range of symptoms such as fatigue, muscle weakness, and high cholesterol (to name a few). In severe or untreated cases, it can lead to serious medical conditions like goiters (a swelling of the thyroid gland), heart palpitations, and impaired memory.

Since manufacturers started adding iodine to salt in the 1920s and the World Health Organization adopted a worldwide salt iodization program in 1993, symptoms of extreme iodine deficiency have largely disappeared. However, for a host of reasons, including iodine-blocking chemicals in our environment, the poor quality (i.e. iodine-free) salt used in processed foods, and a general trend of salt-ophobia among health conscious folks, mild iodine deficiency is once again becoming increasingly common.

The trouble with mild iodine deficiency is that it can manifest very subtly. Fatigue, depression, a higher susceptibility to diseases, difficulty losing weight — these can all result from an underactive thyroid, and if the symptoms sound a little familiar, it’s not hard to test yourself. But if you’re keen to avoid thyroid drama (which, by the way, is especially important if you’re pregnant), noshingon some seaweed could help: One gram of brown seaweed recommended daily intake, while red and green varieties provide slightly less (the exact iodine content depends on the water in which it’s grown)Even mild iodine deficiency during gestation may impair brain function in children. Mitka, M. Journal of the American Medical Association, 2013 June 19; 309(23): 2428.Mild iodine deficiency during pregnancy is associated with reduced educational outcomes in the offspring: 9-year follow-up of the gestational iodine cohort. Hynes, K.L., Otahal P. et al. Menzies Research Institute Tasmania, University of Tasmania, Australia. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 2013 May; 98(5): 1954-62.Assessment of Japanese iodine intake based on seaweed consumption in Japan: A literature-based analysis. Zava, T.T. and Zava, D.T. ZRT Laboratory, Beaverton, USA. Thyroid Research, 2011; 4:14.Variability of iodine content in common commercially available edible seaweeds. Teas, J., Pino, S. et al. Thyroid, 2004 Oct; 14(10): 836-41..

The benefits of this sea green extend far beyond basic nutrition: Research suggests seaweed can also help regulate estrogen and estradiol levels — two hormones responsible for proper development and function of sexual organs — potentially reducing the risk of breast cancer Brown kelp modulates endocrine hormones in female sprague-dawley rats and in human luteinized granulosa cells. Skibola, C.F., Curry, J.D. School of Public Health, University of California-Berkeley. Journal of Nutrition, 2005 February; 135(2): 296-300.. In fact, some claim Japan’s high seaweed consumption is responsible for the country’s conspicuously low incidence of the diseasesThe consumption of seaweed as a protective factor in the etiology of breast cancer: proof of principle. Teas, J., Vena, S. et al. Journal of Applied Phycology, 2013 June; 25(3): 771-779.. For the same reasons, seaweed may also help to control PMS and improve female fertility issuesThe effect of Fucus vesiculosus, an edible brown seaweed, upon menstrual cycle length and hormonal status in three pre-menopausal women: a case report. Skibola, C. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2004; 10..

And many studies studies have shown seaweed is an extraordinarily potent source of antioxidants and also helps prevent inflammation, which can contribute to a host of ailments that include arthritis, celiac disease, asthma, depression, and obesityAntioxidant activities of sulfated polysaccharides from brown and red seaweeds>. Rocha de Souza, M.C., Marques, C.T. et al. Journal of Applied Phycology, 2007 April; 19(2): 153-160.Bio-Prospecting of a Few Brown Seaweeds for Their Cytotoxic and Antioxidant Activities. Vinayak, R.C., Sabu, A.S. et al. Biological Oceanopgraphy Division, National Institute of Oceanography, Dona Paula, Goa. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2011.Algae as promising organisms for environment and health. Shalaby, E.A. Biochemistry Department, Faculty of Agriculture, Cairo University, Giza, Egypt. Plant Signaling and Behavior, 2011 September; 6(9): 1338-1350.Polyunsaturated fatty acids in various macroalgal species from north Atlantic and tropical seas. Van Ginneken, V.J.T., Helsper, J.P.F.G. et al. Lipids in Health and Disease, 2011; 10:104.Marine algal natural products with anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties. Lee, J.C., Hou, M.F. Cancer Cell International, 2013; 13: 55.Is obesity an inflammatory condition? Das, U.N. EFA Sciences LLC, Norwood, Massachusetts, USA. Journal of Nutrition, 2001 November-December; 17(11-12): 953-66.Inflammatory mechanisms in obesity. Gregor, M.F., Hotamisligil, G.S. Department of Genetics and Complex Diseases and Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health. Annual Review of Immunology, 2011; 29: 415-45..

Your Action Plan

Before adding seaweed to all of your meals, consider that — despite it’s potential benefits — this sea vegetable can be troublesomely healthy. Ten grams (roughly two tablespoons) of dulse, a type of red seaweed, has 34 times the amount of potassium in an equally sized serving of banana — a high enough dosage to cause heart palpitations among people with kidney problems (though it should generally be safe for those without preexisting conditions)Palmaria palmata (Dulse) as an unusual maritime aetiology of hyperkalemia in a patient with chronic renal failure: a case report. McGrath, B.M., Harmon, J.P. et al. Journal of Medical Case Reports. 2010; 4: 301..

Similarly, while the thyroid malfunctions without iodine, research suggests too much of the stuff can have its own side effectsSeaweed consumption and the risk of thyroid cancer in women: the Japan Public Health Center-based Prospective Study. Michikawa, T., Inoue, M., et al. Epidemiology and Prevention Division, Research Center for Cancer Prevention and Screening, National Cancer Center, Tokyo. European Journal of Cancer Prevention, 2012 May; 21(3): 254-60.Suppression of thyroid function during ingestion of seaweed “Kombu” (Laminaria japonoca) in normal Japanese adults. Miyai, K., Tokushige, T. The College of Nutrition, Koshien University, Japan. Endocrinology Journal, 2008 December; 55(6): 1103-8.. The answer lies, as always, in moderation — one two-tablespoon serving of brown seaweed every week will provide a happy medium, while nori’s lower iodine content means you’re free to enjoy a few rolls of sushi every week, if you wishThyroid disorders in mild iodine deficiency. Laurberg, P. Nøhr, S.B. et al. Department of Endocrinology and Medicine, Aalborg Hospital, Denmark. Thyroid, 2000 November; 10(11): 951-963..

It’s also worth remembering that if the water the seaweed comes from is contaminated (with, say, toxic metals or arsenic), the seaweed will be as wellCase report: potential arsenic toxicosis secondary to herbal kelp supplement. Amster, E., Tiwary, A. et al. School of Medicine, University of California-Davis. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2007 April;115(4): 606-8..The US Food and Drug Administration regulates commercial seaweed, and they have pretty high safety standards, but it’s important to note that the FDA does not regulate supplements. So if you’re taking seaweed pills (yes, they’re a thing), it’s important to choose a reputable brand. Speak with your physician before you decide on supplements — the metals in some seaweed pills could send you to the hospital, and they can be especially to dangerous to pregnant or lactating women and their babies.

With the right accompaniments, seaweed can be a flavorful component with a healthy dose of antioxidants and iodine — just try not to eat an ocean’s worth.

Want to try a seaweed-based recipe today? Here are a few Greatist-approved recipes:

Kelp Noodles with Almond Ginger Dressing via Greatist
Korean-Style Beef and Seaweed Soup via AllRecipes
Kale with Seaweed, Sesame and Ginger via Simply Recipes
Seaweed Risotto via 101 Cookbooks

Do you have a favorite way to eat seaweed, or do you think we should steer clear of the stuff? Let us know below!