Photo: Dan SaelingerBy Tova Gelfond
A staple in Asian diets since ancient times, seaweeds are among the healthiest foods on the planet, packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. And now we know they're great for the waistline, too: A 2010 study found the algae can reduce our rate of fat absorption by 75 percent, thanks to its inhibitory effect on a digestive enzyme called lipase. (Scientists at Newcastle University are about to begin clinical trials on a "wonder bread" made with alginate fibers and designed to speed weight loss.) Here are four briny plants to sample, all available at Whole Foods or edenfoods.com.
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Wakame (Undaria pinnatifida) Pappardella-like leaves with a salty-sweet zest
Nutritionist Gillian McKeith, PhD, author of the You Are What You Eat Cookbook, calls wakame the woman's seaweed because it is loaded with osteoporosis-preventing calcium and magnesium and acts as a diuretic (which helps reduce bloating). Wakame's pigment, fucoxanthin, is known to improve insulin resistance, and a 2010 animal study found that fucoxanthin burns fatty tissue.
Soak the leaves in cold water until tender, then enjoy them in a cucumber salad, dressed with rice vinegar, sesame oil, and soy sauce. To make miso soup, add wakame, tofu, and a few tablespoons of miso paste to a kombu stock (see below).
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Nori (Porphyra species) Papery sheets with a mild earthy taste
Among the marine flora, nori is one of the richest in protein (up to 50 percent of the plant's dry weight), and one sheet has as much fiber as a cup of raw spinach and more omega-3 fatty acids than a cup of avocado. Nori contains vitamins C (a potent antioxidant) and B12 (crucial for cognitive function) and the compound taurine, which helps control cholesterol.
For a snack, toast strips of nori in the oven at low heat. Or cover a sheet with cooked brown rice; add a layer of sliced carrots, celery, or avocado, and a dash of wasabi. Roll it up and dip in a sauce of tamari, toasted-sesame oil, ginger, and rice vinegar.
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Kombu (Laminaria japonica) Leafy kelp with a full-bodied, savory flavor
Kombu is prized as a source of iodine, which is needed to produce the two key thyroid hormones that control metabolism. The kelp is also rich in fucoidan, a phytochemical that acts as an anticoagulant; a 2011 study found that kombu contains properties that stop clots from forming in blood vessels-which may make it a promising subject for cardiovascular research.
To make a flavorful broth called dashi (the chicken stock of Japan), simmer a strip of dried kombu in water for five minutes. And next time you cook beans, throw a kombu leaf in the pot; the plant's glutamic acid renders the beans more easily digestible and less gassy.
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Arame (Eisenia bicyclis) Long, thin, sweet-tasting strands
Arame provides a good amount of potassium, a mineral known among athletes for preventing muscle cramps. Research has shown that arame has antiviral properties, too, and even an antiobesity effect: In a 2010 experiment, researchers discovered that mice on a high-fat diet experienced less weight gain when their food was supplemented with arame powder.
Soak the strands in cold water for five minutes. To make a summer salad, toss them with pasta, sautéed mushrooms, tomatoes, basil, and olive oil. Dress up any cooked grain with chopped arame. Or add to stir-fried vegetables; arame pairs well with turnip and squash.
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