Kelp is a large, leafy brown seaweed or algae that grows in cool water along rocky coastlines. It's very fast-growing, tacking on about 1.5 feet per day, according to the National Park Service, with some species that can reach lengths of 150 feet. Basically, if the world of seaweed had a head honcho, kelp would be it.
Due to its size, kelp looks like an underwater tree. But unlike true plants, this aquatic algae doesn't actually have roots. Instead, kelp secures itself to the rocky ocean floor, then grows from there, forming dense clusters called kelp forests. Some species thrive in the northern Pacific Ocean — from Baja, California to Japan — while others call the northwest Atlantic home. They also grow along the coasts of South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. Regardless of the location, kelp forests are amazingly complex, offering food and shelter to thousands of animals. Other types of seaweed don't grow in packed groups, let alone produce actual ecosystems. The sheer size of kelp is also noteworthy; it's a giant compared to other seaweeds.
What makes kelp similar to its underwater cousins, however, is that it's super sustainable. Kelp and other seaweeds can be farmed with minimal impact on the environment, according to research published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin. (They're typically taken out of the water using anchored ropes called long-lines.) What's more, aquatic veggies are plentiful, fast-growing, and do not need to be fertilized, watered, or weeded, all of which are typically required when cultivating produce on land and can negatively impact the environment.
Kelp Nutrition Facts
"Kelp is highly nutritious because it's high in minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants," says Liz Wyosnick, M.S., R.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Equilibriyum. It also "has iron, zinc, calcium, copper, and vanadium, [a mineral] linked to blood sugar regulation," she adds.
"Kelp is a great source of iodine, vitamin C, manganese, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and various antioxidants," which help the body combat oxidative stress, notes Wyosnick. "Altogether, this unique array of compounds can help fortify the blood by supplying vital nutrients that we rarely get from typical foods," explains Wyosnick.
Here's the nutritional information for 100 grams of raw kelp, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA):
1.7 grams protein
< 1 gram fat
9.5 grams carbohydrate
~ 1 gram fiber
168 milligrams calcium
121 milligrams magnesium
180 micrograms folate
Nutrients: Sea kelp is a natural source of vitamins A, B1, B2, C, D and E, as well as minerals including zinc, iodine, magnesium, iron, potassium, copper and calcium. In fact it contains the highest natural concentration of calcium of any food – ten times more than milk.
Health Benefits of Kelp
Although kelp is considered a ~superfood~ (just like sea moss), it's important to know that not all kelp is equal. Kelp soaks up nutrients from the sea, so it can also pick up substances such as heavy metals and contaminants. And since "our oceans [are becoming] more polluted and unsustainable, the integrity and nutrition of the kelp may dwindle," explains Wyosnick. To get the most out of your kelp, consider buying organic seaweed farmed in clean waters, usually marked with the USDA Organic Label, recommends Wyosnick. You can also keep an eye out for sustainable certification logos, such as the "Friend of the Sea" label or ASC-MSC Seaweed Standard symbol, both of which ensure that seaweed products were ethically harvested and produced without harming the nearby natural environment.
Supports Bone Health
When you think of healthy bones, seaweed probably doesn't come to mind (hopefully lifting weights does!) — but the underwater veggie can totally lend a hand. "Kelp is an excellent source of calcium, as well as vitamins K, A, and B12, as well as iron," says Maya Feller, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., a registered dietitian in Brooklyn, New York. "Vitamin K is [particularly] important for bone metabolism and works with calcium and vitamin D to help maintain bone health," she adds. In order to score this nutrient's bone-building and strengthening benefits, non-pregnant folks ages 19+ should aim for 90 micrograms per day, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Regulates Thyroid Function
When it comes to kelp's benefits, this one stands out in particular. Why? Because kelp is loaded with iodine, a "key nutrient for activating thyroid hormones," says Wyosnick. Iodine helps the thyroid run properly and make thyroid hormones — which are in charge of a variety of essential functions including metabolism as well as bone and brain development during pregnancy and infancy, among other important functions, according to the NIH. So, it's a good idea to keep 'em in check.
One way to do this is to chow down on sea kelp, one of the best natural sources of iodine. In fact, some types of kelp can have up to 2,984 micrograms of iodine per sheet (1 gram), according to the NIH, which recommends 150 micrograms of iodine per day for non-pregnant people ages 19 ad older. Meaning: Just one sheet of this seaweed can provide nearly 2,000 percent of the recommended daily intake.
You'll want to use caution if you have an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), though. Too much iodine (from kelp or otherwise) can worsen the condition, says Wyosnick. If you have a history of thyroid issues, chat with your doctor before digging into kelp.
Manages Blood Sugar
"Kelp is a rich source of the trace mineral vanadium, [which] may have potent hypoglycemic effects," says Feller. This means it naturally lowers your blood sugar, helping maintain healthy blood glucose levels over time. And although scientists are still learning how vanadium works, research published in Bioscience Horizons has found that vanadium can suppress enzymes involved in glucose production and the development of type 2 diabetes. A 2014 study reported similar results, stating that extracts from brown seaweeds, such as kelp, can inhibit enzymes that increase blood glucose levels. What's more, there are animal studies that have found "kelp may improve beta-cell function in the pancreas, resulting in a reduction of fasting blood glucose," cites Feller. (BTW: Beta-cells are the only cells that can make insulin, a hormone that controls blood sugar by helping cells take up glucose, according to Current Diabetes Reports.)
TL;DR — sea kelp has the power to lower blood sugar, which can, in turn, help stave off health issues, such as heart disease and diabetes.
Reduces Risk of Cancer
As mentioned above, kelp is chock-full of antioxidants. This includes nutrients such as vitamin C, along with polyphenols such as carotenoids, flavonoids, and alkaloids, according to Wyosnick. In turn, kelp is one of the best foods you can add to your cancer-prevention menu. (Olive oil is also super rich in polyphenols, BTW.)
It's thought that cancer may be more likely to occur within a highly oxidized and inflamed state, says Wyosnick. This occurs when free radicals — or molecules that damage healthy cells — build up. The antioxidants in kelp neutralize these free radicals, protecting your body against cellular damage. Oh, and when it comes to antioxidant-rich foods? "Kelp is a star because [of its] unique makeup and concentration [of polyphenols]," says Wyosnick. "Essentially, you get a lot of antioxidant bang for your buck," she adds.
Supports Weight Loss
Although the evidence is conflicting, alginate — a compound found in seaweed — may have the potential for weight management or weight loss. A 2012 study found that, when combined with an energy- or calorie-restricted diet, alginate supplementation was associated with greater weight loss in people with obesity. The researchers attributed this effect to alginate's fiber content, which can keep hunger at bay by increasing satiety. On the flip side, another 2012 study in the journal Obesity found no effect on appetite and satiety in overweight and obese participants. With that said, kelp is low in calories: One strip of dried kelp has just under 2 calories.
Kelp, potent antioxidant properties : Which fight against disease-causing free radicals has gained increased attention in the health sphere over the last decade due to its vitamin and mineral density," she says. "It contains ten times the amount of minerals as a plant grown in soil, and there is now an abundance of kelp supplements on the market."
These are some of the health benefits and the pitfalls to watch out for when adding more kelp to your diet:
Reduces inflammation: "Fucoidan- found in kelp - may help to lower inflammation in the brain and can help those with neurodegeneration, although further research is required to determine its full benefits," says Hamilton. "Kelp may also help protect brain cells against toxicity.
Skin-care benefits: Due to kelps rich antioxidant content, kelp is now being used in many natural skincare products, notes Hamilton. "Human skin is often overexposed to the sun and pollution, and as a result, there is a build-up of free radicals at the surface of the skin which kelp has the potential to neutralise," she says. "Kelp also has anti-bacterial, anti-ageing and anti-acne properties so may help those with various skin conditions."
Weight loss: Iodine is a trace mineral vital for the operation of the thyroid gland which plays an important part in body development and metabolism. It combines with tyrosine - an amino acid - to create T3 and T4, thyroid hormones that regulate metabolism and other physiological functions throughout the body. As sea kelp is the richest natural source of iodine it can help to regulate metabolism and in turn affect weight loss and gain.
Additionally, a University of Newcastle study concluded that alginates - fibres within sea kelp - 'significantly reduce fat digestion' and absorption, much more so than most consumer slimming treatments. However, the findings are only preliminary. "Alginate found in kelp may also stop the absorption of fat in the digestive system, which leads to fewer calories being absorbed following a meal," says Hamilton. "But these findings are preliminary so further research is needed to understand the long term effect."
She notes that other studies have shown that due to kelp's rich polyphenol content, it may also help stabilise blood sugar for those with blood sugar regulation issues.
A good source of calcium: "Often on a plant-based diet and/or dairy-free diet, getting optimal amounts of calcium in your diet is challenging," says Hamilton. "However, kelp is an excellent source of calcium-containing 168 mg per 100 g serving." Calcium is key to build and maintain strong bones and supports the proper function of your muscles, heart and nervous system, she adds.
Good for hair :
There's plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting taking sea kelp supplements can boost hair growth. Whether or not it actually boosts growth, it contains nutrients involved in hair health and strength, so it may help reduce split ends and breakages.
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