With the rising popularity of sushi and Japanese salads, you've probably had some experience eating sea vegetables. Nowadays nearly everyone has. Typically dark green and delicately thin, narrow sheets of seaweed are often wrapped around sticky rice or used to form a wavy bed for slivers and juliennes of fish and pickled ginger. But even if you haven't been poking with a chopstick at Asian food lately, you may be surprised at how much seaweed you've already consumed in your lifetime.

While most of us probably don't think of seaweed as a dessert food, we've actually been eating it as an ingredient in desserts for years. That's because certain components of sea vegetables—known as algin, agar or carrageenan—serve as ideal food stabilizers, giving pudding its thick, creamy texture and ice cream that smooth, frozen consistency. But sea vegetables are far more than just thickeners; they are nutrient-rich plants that can help rid the body of toxins and may even help us ward off cancer.

Awash In Minerals
Seaweeds are considered supernutrients because they provide trace elements that may be lacking from the typical Western diet, which is often nutrient-depleted due to poor food choices and overworked cropland. We also have a tendency to indulge in less-than-ideal dietary habits, favoring fatty or sugary foods, or neglecting to eat enough fruits and vegetables.

"Seaweeds are the most mineralized of any foods you can eat," says Ryan Drum, PhD, a biomedical herbalist who has been harvesting, eating and studying seaweed since the 1960s. According to Drum, eating a mere ounce of seaweed a week can provide crucial minerals and a healthy dose of vitamins C, E and B complex, plus beta-carotene and a reliable source of dietary iodine. "Maintaining adequate iodine levels in the body is necessary to maintain a healthy thyroid and to protect against radioactive iodine exposure and may serve as a cancer preventive," says Drum. And although iodine deficiency is rare in the United States, seaweed is a foolproof source of iodine for people who prefer sea salt to iodized salt.

Each year, Drum travels around the country teaching naturopaths and herbalists how to utilize sea vegetables to treat everything from hypothyroidism to emphysema to heavy-metal toxicity. Research suggests that certain compounds contained in seaweed have the ability to bind elements such as mercury, cadmium, and strontium, preventing absorption and pulling these potentially toxic circulating elements out of the body (Canadian Medical Association Journal, 1968, vol. 99, no. 4). "Ever since I started using seaweed as medicine, it has been a collection of miracles," says Drum. "But as a trained cell biologist, I know that it is not a miracle—it is simply good nutrition."

A Swell Of Popularity
In their search for nutrient-rich wild foods untainted by genetic engineering or pesticides and other toxins, a growing number of people are discovering sea vegetables and just how easy it is to incorporate them into their everyday cooking. Chef Leslie Cerier is one such convert. Her first foray into seaweed cookery occurred in the 1980s during an exploration of macrobiotic cooking. Delighted with seaweed's taste and versatility and conscious of its health benefits, she soon began making sea vegetables a regular part of her diet, tossing a piece or two of dried wakame or hiziki into a pot of soup or adding a bit of laver to salad dressings.

Over time, Cerier started experimenting with more exotic sea vegetables, learning their unique flavors and creating innovative recipes such as seaweed pizzas and creamy desserts. These days, she teaches cooking classes on how to use sea vegetables and has coauthored, with Shep Erhart, two cookbooks on the subject, including The Sea Vegetable Celebration (Book Publishing Co., 2001).

According to Cerier, you don't have to be a sushi fan to reap the health benefits of ocean flora. Simply sprinkling a bit of powdered kelp on a bowl of popcorn or tossing a pinch of dulse into a soup stock will provide several nutrients and some serious health protection. "I tell my students to think of seaweed as an herb or a vegetable rather than as some weird weed," says Cerier. She firmly believes that once sea vegetables are made approachable, they could easily take center stage in the majority of kitchens.

"People are pleasantly surprised when they discover that a bit of dulse cooked in a pot of water can create a delicious mineral-rich stock, or that sea palm can be used like fettuccine noodles," she says. "If you have an open mind and approach seaweed with enthusiasm, you will discover a whole new world of healthy cooking."

Linda Knittel is a freelance health writer and co-author of The Soy Sensation (McGraw Hill, 2001).