Sunday, 20 January 2013

The health benefits of the humble algae: jewels of the sea.

Today I felt I wanted to write about nutrition. What I am going to write about is perhaps rather exotic. And for many, unheard of even. And to some, redundant and superfluous, in view of our daily life tussles and the areas of grave concern that the world has.. So, surely these are not things people want to know about? Well. This is not a view that I have held. I always felt that we need to tackle issues at a ‘sub-atomic’ level, at the grass-root. We have problems in the world today. And some of these problems could be addressed using good information. As we know, knowledge is power; good information could be handy anywhere and anytime. Also, we need to learn and make available the very basics of life and living to all people.  We have to be more aware of our environment and our bounty. We need to learn. While educational institutes do provide us with the basic education, often what appears to be more streamlined understanding of some hitertho unknown areas could remain an unventured field in them. Leaving us rather ignorant. And this is where now and then, I feel, we must make it is our duty to utilize beaconlights and sentinels and spheres of expression like our writing assignments, to make known some greats when we can.
I have a passion for nutrition. Writing about health and nutrition in a website that seeks to discuss the agendas of the world, may seem unusual. But I feel everyone should know about some things that we are available in the world, which are invaluable to people.  And now and again, every area dedicated to every other issue, should devote the few minutes at times to something that is invaluable. Deltawomen reaches out to millions. And I felt Deltawomen could help educate everyone, not just women, about health and nutrition. But today we will not discuss about illnesses and we will not discuss about ways to manage them. We are going to talk about ways to improve our health. We will not talk about exercise and fresh air. We will talk about good nutrition and good food. If we could make healthy food and nutrition available to everyone, life would improve tremendously. A majority of life’s maladies would be averted. What prevents us from distributing nature’s bounty and goodness? Is it ignorance and entrenched lifestyles? Perhaps. Healthful and salubrious, these types of food should form major parts of our diets and should be made readily available to everyone. Let us remember, health is wealth . A large part of our human sufferings would disappear if health could be insured against all odds. Good food is an insurance. So, today I want to discuss about a type of food and spread the knowledge of its amazing goodness . The food item does sound rather exotic …………….hopefully not for long……It is called the seaweed/algae.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Algae or seaweed has been known to people since time immemorial! Yet, this little plant which is so nutrient dense rarely catches our attention and is often overlooked as people in supermarkets readily steal their glance away, looking at it curiously and then filling their baskets with the more well known options. Lack of popular knowledge and availability has made it a very exotic food ( and yet it is not that expensive! Though we are limited often by the varieties that are available) decorating the Japanese and Oriental food sections only perhaps. Historically, the seaweed was a part of people’s stable diets for those living in coastal areas. Today, people in Japan, Korea, China, Ireland and Scotland still consume this traditional food item.
The seaweed is very nutrient dense. It is especially rich in iodine which is required for the proper functioning of the thyroid gland and for other metabolic functions in the human body. It is also high in protein, vitamins and other mineral content. It grows in water and can be marine or freshwater. The freshwater varieties are toxic. Edible seaweed are the marine varieties. Some marine varieties can still cause gastrointestinal disturbance.
The seaweed is commercially marketed as thin dried sheets or in its dried form and as powder.
There are about 15 edible seaweed available in the market today. Here is a quick look at the most popular ones amongst them, their nutrient contents and their use, so that you can look for them in a supermarket or can prescribe them to an ill person who needs good nutrition but will not have any other food!

Kelp : Kelp contains phosphorus, calcium, magnesium and potassium in high quantities and is a source of vitamins A, B1, B2, C, D and E and several amino acids. Kelp is the saltiest of all sea vegetables and this makes it a popular salt substitute. It is low in sodium and so is a very healthy choice. Kelp is dried after harvesting and either cut into strips or powdered.

Nori: Nori has twice as much Vitamin C as oranges, is packed with beta-carotenes like carrots and is rich in iron and calcium. The sheets of seaweed sold in the supermarkets are usually made of Nori.

Arame: Arame is laden with minerals like magnesium, potassium, calcium and sodium.

Wakame : Wakame is iron-rich, has fucoxanthin that helps lose weight and has 10 times more calcium than a glass of milk! It is also rich in thiamine, niacin and omega 3 fatty acids. It is sold either fresh or dried. It takes upto an hour to rehydrate it and requires around 1 litre of water per 10g.

    Kombu : It is a rich source of glutamic acid, a natural substitute for monosodium glutamate and hence a flavour-enhancer. Some kinds are used in making an infusion similar to tea.
Spirulina : Spirulina contains about 60% protein, is a complete protein containing all the essential amino acids though with reduced amounts of methionine, cysteine and lysine when compared to meat, eggs and milk though in far greater quantity when compared to legumes.  Available as powder or tablets, it is usually taken as supplements. However one should be cautious with Spirulina intake. Due to very high Vitamin K content, patients undergoing anticoagulant treatments should seek medical advice as their medication level might need to be adjusted accordingly. People with the rare condition Phenylketonuria should avoid having Spirulina as it contains high amounts of phenylalanine.Studies on spirulina have not shown any toxic or teratogenic effects when taken as a supplement regularly.

Dulce: Dulce can be eaten directly off the rocks! Or it can be dried and powdered. In Iceland there is a tradition to eat Dulce with butter. Dulce can also be pan fried.

Hijiki: Hijiki is a black seaweed which is bought dried and needs to be reconstituted in water for about an hour. It develops a very strong flavour and aroma when cooked in oil.

These seaweeds are very versatile and can be eaten anyhow, providing abundant nutrition to our body, without the need for any supplements if taken regularly. Perhaps we can think of incorporating this humble little gift from nature in our daily diets: we would be doing ourselves good. And if we could make it available to people all across the world, we could perhaps alleviate unnecessary poor health in a lot of people.

Anusmita Baruah

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