Seaweeds float to our shores for your health and your spirit

Eat Your Seaweed

by Mollie Doyle

Eat Your Seaweed

Courtesy of Polly Hill Arboretum

Green underwater trees. Pink and brown sheets of glass. Wet white cartilage. Black pods. It is elemental, slippery, and slick, and there’s the ick factor. Stepping into a pile of cold, wet, sandy seaweed oozes slime between your toes. Swimming at low tide, a field of eel-grass laps the water’s surface and your bare belly.

Seaweed can even be heart-stopping. Once while surfing, a massive blade of bull kelp slapped my leg so forcefully that I was convinced it was a shark.

Besides the crucial role seaweed plays in the ocean environment’s vitality and health, in my view, there’s been really only one upside to seaweed: it holds a sushi roll together. But I’m always looking to find new ways to rely more on the food and resources that are indigenous. So I wondered, should I eat more seaweed? Should we all be eating it? Many people espouse its health benefits. But is seaweed really so good for you that it is worth enduring the slimy, salty, fishy, rubbery chewiness? It was time to find out. Little did I know how rich our Island is in seaweed and seaweed history.

The Seaweed Lady

Celebrated seaweed artist and avid amateur phycologist (a student of marine algae or seaweed), Rose Treat of Edgartown is now 101 years old. She has collected and made art with seaweed since her first visit to the Vineyard in 1959. Rose’s artworks are renowned and rest in the permanent collections of The Marine Biological Laboratory, The Vineyard Museum, The State University at Potsdam, NY, and Harvard University; and they are also a part of the Ocean Planet Exhibition of the Smithsonian Institution.

More than 375 of Rose’s specimens of marine algae are also part of the herbarium collection at the Polly Hill Arboretum—it is an amazing and critical document of the biodiversity near the shores of the Island.

Ms. Treat, aka The Seaweed Lady, is sharp, funny and radiant. This centenarian who has such a profound relationship with algae elaborates, “In 1959, I was living in Westchester County and was suffering from a deep depression. I suggested to my husband [the late mystery writer Lawrence Treat] that, if we went somewhere altogether different, it might help. A friend suggested Martha’s Vineyard.” Rose said wryly, “I was thinking more along the lines of the South of France.”

Rose celebrated her first day on the Island with an early morning swim. As she swam along the rocky shoreline, she noticed seaweed floating and swaying in the water. “I had seen it before. But I hadn’t seen it.” She describes the moment as if it were a clap of lightening striking her. An ah-ha moment. Her depression instantly lifted and her life with seaweed began. Rose reveals that Martha’s Vineyard—specifically Lobsterville Beach in Aquinnah—is one of the four best places on Earth for collecting and studying seaweed (Kobe, Japan; Nantes, France; and San Diego, CA are the other three). I asked Rose if she thought her own longevity had anything to do with eating seaweed. She said, “Oh, no. My grandparents lived to 104! It’s in my genes. Besides, I don’t like the taste of it.” And then she said with a sparkle, “But I know it is good for you.”

How is Seaweed Good for Us?

Island acupuncturist Fae Kontje-Gibbs explains seaweed’s health-giving benefits in terms of Chinese medicine: “This is the time where we go from the water element of winter to the wood element of spring. The watery nature of seaweed provides a foundation for the bursting forth of new spring green. Seaweed is also such an amazing way of delivering a lot of microminerals to the body. It protects us from radiation.”

According to the Center for Disease Control, microminerals (also called trace minerals) play a critical role in human nutrition. They include iron, zinc, iodine, selenium, copper, manganese, and chromium. While we need very small amounts of them in our daily diet, they have a profound effect on our health. They help transport oxygen to the body, help us assimilate other nutrients, and form building blocks such as hormones, amino acids, and proteins, and can even act as antioxidants. Essentially, the whole body—nails, hair, bones, nerves and blood—need trace minerals to function properly. They also play a particularly important role in supporting the thyroid gland’s function.

Dr. William A. Albrecht, chairman of the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri, asserts we used to get these minerals from our daily diets, but, because farmed land around the world has become so overtaxed, we are getting less and less of them through our food. The reason seaweed is such a wonderful food for us is that the sea has not been depleted and it delivers all the trace minerals to our bodies in one perfect package.

According to Ryan Drum, who has advanced degrees in Chemical Technology and in Botany (Phycology) from Iowa State University: “One of the decay products of nuclear explosions is Iodine 131…. All nuclear facilities release radioactive Iodine 131 into the atmosphere. Hundreds of them are licensed to do so. This means that we are all continually and erratically dusted with Iodine 131 every day of every year. Iodine 131 is hazardous because our bodies will happily take it in if we need iodine. “In other words, our bodies will absorb radioactive iodine from the air if we don’t have enough healthy, natural iodine (iodine 127) in our diets.”

Monica Skye, a third generation Master Herbalist and the founder and creator of Skye Botanicals in West Tisbury, makes a “Serious Seaweed Potion” for just this situation. Monica explains, “Basically, for optimal function, your thyroid needs trace minerals. If you are not getting them from your diet, your body will look for them in the air. We want to be full of the good stuff.”

O.K., it’s a fact: Seaweed is good for you. I tried all sorts of seaweeds—hijiki and sea lettuce seaweed salads, kombu in my beans, dulse flakes on my salad, spicy nori strips, seaweed drinks, snacks. And though I am convinced of the many health benefits of seaweed, I must confess that I still like the crunch of garden greens way more than the slippery ocean ones. Besides, even the Seaweed Lady doesn’t eat seaweed! Except in one thing…

In our conversation, Rose reminded me of an old Irish recipe that I learned to make when I was nine: Carrageen Moss Pudding.

My mother used to take my sister and me down to a North Shore beach. There she taught us how to identify Carrageen moss and how to collect it. Once we had a large bowlful, we went back to the house, rinsed it off and dropped it into a vat of milk, which within 5 minutes, to our amazement, began to grow thicker and thicker. Then we added eggs, sugar, and vanilla to the milk, poured it into a white soufflé dish and put it in the fridge. A few hours later, we had a magical silky pudding. I couldn’t believe seaweed—this slimy, nasty stuff— could do this. The pudding was good, but it was discovering something new in nature that really fed me.

Rose’s profound relationship with seaweed is a testament to this kind of healing power. Thank you, Rose, for reminding me to look at my surroundings more closely, to listen and be touched.