Chances are if you’ve ever been in the ocean and come across a pile of seaweed, your first thought is, “Eww, get it away from me.” While you might not enjoy having something slimy rub against you while you’re swimming, seaweed isn’t all bad. In fact, you might want to add it to your next meal, since it’s one of the most nutrient-dense foods out there. Is it the next kale? And how the heck should you eat it? Here’s what you should know about this superfood. (Heal your whole body with Rodale’s 12-day liver detox for total body health.)
What is it?
“Seaweed” is really a catch-all term used to describe the plants and algae that grow in the ocean and other bodies of water. You can think of these as different varities of “sea vegetables,” including kelp (brown algae) and spirulina (blue-green algae), explains Torey Armul, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Seaweed is loaded with vitamins and minerals but very low in calories.” Raw seaweed has just 26 calories per ½ cup.
Seaweed, while thin and low-cal, packs more nutrients than you could imagine. For starters, it’s a great source of iodine. “Iodine is critical for thyroid health,” explains Armul. “It’s also a good source of vitamin C, which helps with immune function, as well as iron, which helps to deliver oxygen and energy to our bodies.”
This food also provides vitamin A, amino acids, and multiple B vitamins. “It’s one of the only plant sources of vitamin B12,” says Isabel Smith, RDN, founder of Isabel Smith Nutrition in New York City. “Seaweed also contains potassium and magnesium, which is good for your bones and your heart.”
What to do with it?
Seaweed is common in Asian dishes: Those “wrappers” holding your sushi roll together are made of thin sheets of seaweed called nori. You can also order a seaweed salad at a Japanese restaurants, or buy dried seaweed snacks at most supermarkets. Armul suggests looking for roasted seaweed snacks or seaweed paper that have a USDA-certified label on them. “This helps ensure that it doesn’t contain any heavy metals or other ocean contaminants,” she says.
Looking for a pasta alternative? Try kelp noodles. They have only 34 calories per half cup, and are tasty with peanut sauce, says Smith. Or head to your local healthfood store and pickup some spirulina—a type of blue-green algae—to add to your morning smoothie. “It ups the protein count and adds in energizing vitamin B and iron.”
Other ways to enjoy seaweed include making a seaweed sandwich: Substitute nori sheets for bread and fill them with brown rice, vegetables, and avocado. “You can also sprinkle dried seaweed sheets in omelets, smoothies, stir-fry, popcorn and salad dressing,” suggests Armul.
While munching on seaweed is generally a good thing, it is possible to overdo it. Most healthy people would need to eat seaweed quite often for it to cause any serious harm, but “some seaweed can be very salty and that can make you very thirsty, which can make you feel hungry more quickly,” says Smith.
If you have kidney disease, a thyroid disorder, or high blood pressure, be sure to check with your doctor before biting in. “Too much iodine can cause thyroid problems, the high potassium content can be problematic for people with kidney issues, and the high sodium content can lead to fluid retention,” explains Armul.
This article originally appeared on Prevention.