Nutrition Benefits of Kelp

Written & Medically Reviewed by Kari Natwick, RDN, LD, IFNCP

"Incorporating kelp into your diet is one of the most powerful things you can do to support both your health and the planet." - Kari Natwick, RDN, LD, IFNCP

Kelp: It’s Your Ocean Multivitamin

Eating kelp regularly is an excellent way for you to stay healthy and prevent chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and have great gut health. This is because kelp contains essential nutrients that can be hard to find in many other foods, and are often lacking in the typical Westernized diet.

We like to call kelp your ocean multivitamin because it is so nutrient dense -- it contains a huge array of macronutrients, micronutrients, fiber, and bioactive components that promote health in ways that only this unique food can.

Last, kelp is just plain delicious, and here at Barnacle Foods, we continue to expand the culinary boundaries of seaweed in new and flavorful ways.

Iodine & Thyroid Health

The World Health Organization estimates that 2 billion people on the planet are deficient in iodine, including 241 million school children, because people are not consuming enough iodine-rich foods.  

Kelp is one of the few foods in the world that contains an abundance of and is one of the best natural sources of iodine. Iodine is a nutrient that is critically important for thyroid health as it is an essential component of the thyroid hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). The thyroid regulates important activities in the body including metabolism, enzymatic activity, protein synthesis, and is required for skeletal and central nervous system development in fetuses and infants.

This connection between iodine and thyroid health is of growing importance as the statistics around the world, especially among women, show that thyroid dysfunction is on the rise.

What is Hypothyroidism?
One form of thyroid dysfunction is called hypothyroidism.  This is when there is a decrease in thyroid function or decreased action of thyroid hormones in the body.  This disease disproportionately affects women, compared to men, with 1 in 8 women developing thyroid dysfunction in their lifetime.  People with hypothyroidism experience:

fatigue

exhaustion

weight gain

high cholesterol

depression

anxiety

infertility

reduced brain and cognitive function.

When it comes to thyroid function, iodine is a critical nutrient for the production of thyroid hormones.  In fact, iodine deficiency is one of the most common causes of hypothyroidism in the world.  (Please note that this only applies to hypothyroidism, and not the autoimmune version of hypothyroidism known as Hashimoto’s.)

Inadequate Iodine Intake

Foods that are high in iodine are not very common in most people’s diets.  Seaweed is the greatest source of iodine, followed by seafood, then dairy.  The majority of the world’s iodine is found in the ocean, making foods from the ocean some of the richest dietary sources of iodine.  

Because of the limited source of dietary iodine, most individuals do not meet the recommended dietary intake for iodine, therefore iodine was historically added to salt.  With most people in westernized countries consuming more processed foods, many are led to believe that they consume enough iodine through salt.  However, many of these products are produced with salt that has not been iodized.  

Additionally, people are no longer using iodized salt when cooking in their homes.  This is true because of trends such as using sea salt or other forms of Himalayan salts.

Last, there are many people that eat less sodium on purpose due to concerns about high blood pressure, or those who follow diets that are restrictive.

Iodine in Food

Kelp is an excellent source of iodine with 1 serving of kelp (120 mg dry weight) containing 225 mcg, exceeding the RDA of 150 mcg in adults in general.  Iodine needs for pregnant and breastfeeding women are even higher with the RDA at 220 mcg for pregnant women and 290 mcg per day for breastfeeding women. 

Incorporating kelp into your diet is an excellent way to ensure adequate intake of this vital nutrient.  

As important as iodine intake is for thyroid health, taking too much through supplementation can be harmful and even injure the thyroid, especially if a person has a deficiency in selenium.  Contact your doctor to determine if this is a consideration for you.

The Gut Microbiota and Digestive Health

The health of your gut and the microbiome truly affects most aspects of health and well-being and has far-reaching impacts on multiple systems in your body including heart health, metabolic health, weight management, and your brain.

Kelp & The Gut Lining

Eating kelp is an excellent way to maintain the health of the gut lining and is a solid strategy to support the health of the gut microbiota.

One of the primary amino acids in kelp is glutamic acid or glutamine. This amino acid can only be found in food and is the preferred source of fuel for the intestinal epithelial cells, which are the cells that make up the lining of the gut. When these cells get damaged because of inflammation, poor diet, alcohol, medications, etc., it can cause intestinal permeability, otherwise known as leaky gut.

Consuming foods high in glutamine helps to keep the cells that create the lining of the gut healthy. Kelp provides your diet with this essential amino acid and plays an important role in supporting the health of the gut lining. Interestingly, glutamic acid is also the essence behind how kelp lends its flavor profile to the taste sensation of ‘umami’.

Kelp & Fiber

The second way that kelp supports a healthy gut is through the fiber that it contains. Kelp is considered a good source of fiber per weight in grams. The majority of people do not consume adequate amounts of fiber in their diet, consuming only 15 grams of fiber per day on average, compared to the recommended 25-35 grams.

Consuming adequate amounts of fiber has far-reaching benefits including improved blood sugar control, bowel regularity, improved digestion, reduced low-density lipoprotein (or “bad” cholesterol levels), and is critical to the health of the gut microbiota.

Kelp is considered to be a good source of a type of fiber known as sulfated polysaccharides, which is a type of fermentable fiber that is not digested in the gut. Because it is not digested, it can make its way into the large bowel where these fibers provide food for beneficial bacteria in the colon, thus supporting an abundant and diverse gut microbiota.

Sulfated polysaccharides also contain biological compounds that can prevent blood clots, reduce inflammation, support immune function, prevent viruses, and prevent tumors. (Pereira #)

Last, fibers in seaweed are also known to promote bowel regularity and transit time in the colon, which are beneficial factors when it comes to preventing colon cancer.

The amount of fiber in seaweed is comparable in weight to other whole-grain foods. Even though the amount of seaweed consumed is generally less, adding seaweed into your diet with regularity will provide a form of fiber that is most beneficial to healing the gut and growing your gut garden! A little bit goes a long way, especially if consumed regularly.

Brain Health

One of the superpowers of kelp is how it supports brain health by providing nutrients that are so critical for the brain function including vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

The first of these key nutrients so abundant in kelp are healthy fats known as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), with much of it occurring from omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These fatty acids are considered essential as they must be consumed in the diet as the human body cannot manufacture them. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans’ diets are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, but eating kelp can boost levels of these omega-3 fatty acids and their health benefits.

The primary polyunsaturated fatty acid in kelp is EPA or eicosapentaenoic acid. EPA is an omega-3 fatty acid that is critical for the health of brain cells, supports healthy cholesterol levels, and for preventing inflammation.

EPA has also been found to play a key role in brain health, promoting cognitive development in infants and children, and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and depression in adults. It is also beneficial for the reduction of age-related macular degeneration, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis.


Last, kelp also contains powerful polyphenols called flavonoids which support detoxification, protect against inflammation, and promote cell repair. Because of this, these flavonoids have been shown to have a powerful impact on the brain by reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Vitamins

Boosting your vitamin intake is easy with kelp. In weight per ounces, kelp contains high amounts of vitamin K and folate.

Vitamin K is a fat-soluble nutrient that plays an important role in blood clotting, supports normal calcium levels, and helps to maintain strong and healthy bones. Sources of vitamin K in the diet include foods such as sea vegetables and dark green leafy vegetables. Kelp is considered a good source of Vitamin K as 100 grams contains 55% of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA).

Folate is a vitamin that is essential for the growth of healthy cells in the body, prevention of anemia, and the prevention of neural tube defects in babies. It is also supportive of brain health by reducing the likelihood of depression, and through the prevention of cognitive decline. Last, it plays a role in the prevention of heart disease and strokes. Kelp contains 45% of the RDA for folate per 100 grams.

Minerals

Kelp and other seaweeds have a high mineral content due to the fact that they grow in a marine habitat and they absorb minerals from their environment. Kelp contains high amounts of minerals, including calcium, iron, and copper. These minerals are found in many commonly consumed foods, however, are in higher concentrations per milligram and have a higher level of bioavailability from kelp. Brown seaweeds, such as kelp, contain higher levels of minerals per milligram of minerals such as magnesium and iodine than other foods.

Magnesium

Magnesium is an abundant mineral in the body. It is required for more than 300 enzyme reactions including muscle and nerve function, blood sugar regulation, blood pressure, and for making protein, bone, and DNA.

The most common sources of magnesium in the diet include legumes, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, and whole grains. Fortified cereal and milk products can also contain magnesium. However, due to the fact that the majority of people do not include these in their diets, and because of mineral depletion in the soil that results from modern agricultural practices, many people do not get enough.

Per 100 grams, kelp contains 121 mg or half of the RDA of magnesium. Although it would be difficult to consume this amount of kelp, consuming kelp with regularity in the diet can support adequate magnesium intake. (“Magnesium - Fact Sheet for Professionals”)

Protein

Protein provides you with energy that is sustaining and supports satisfaction. This feeling of satiety prevents food cravings and can support blood sugar and hormone balance. Protein-rich foods also provide the amino acids and sulfur-rich compounds that create the building blocks we need to support detoxification and for producing neurotransmitters in our gut and our brain that support mood and prevent depression. The protein choices that you make really matter.

Kelp contains high levels of protein per weight in grams and offers a variety of essential amino acids including alanine, aspartic acid, glycine, serine, and cystine. On a gram-for-gram basis, its protein and amino acid composition are comparable to beef, however, seaweed is consumed in smaller quantities and therefore doesn’t contribute large amounts of protein to our diets. The nutritional composition of the frond, stipe, and bulb show similar composition; however, the frond contains more protein and fiber.

The rate our bodies absorb protein from seaweed can be slowed when protein is trapped within the cellular matrix of the kelp’s fibers. Food preparation methods that include fermentation can break down these cellular fibers, allowing these proteins to be liberated.

Infant & Child Development

Supporting the health of families is so important to us here at Barnacle Foods. Including kelp in the diets of pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children helps to support the health and development of families in many ways.

Consuming kelp supports brain health, muscle growth, cellular repair, and reduces inflammation for both pregnant women and babies because of the richness in nutrients such as iodine, healthy fats like EPA, protein, and polyphenols.

Kelp is also an incredible source of iodine, and many women do not consider how important the nutrient is during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Unfortunately, many women are deficient in this critical nutrient when the need is highest. This need for iodine is essential for babies because it supports brain development as a baby develops and during childhood.

Weight Management

Kelp is a low-calorie food that hosts superpowers when it comes to weight management and weight loss. One of the ways it does this is through a fiber known as alginate.

This fiber helps to promote feelings of satiety, fullness and reduces feelings of hunger, all of which can be beneficial in helping an individual regulate food intake and support weight management.

This same fiber has also been shown to support healthy blood sugar, which is closely interrelated to an individual’s ability to regulate hunger and know when they are full.

Another way that kelp supports weight management is that it contains an antioxidant called Fucoxanthin, which gives kelp its characteristic brown/golden color.

Fucoxanthin falls under a category of nutraceuticals known as ‘fat burners’ due to its ability to induce uncoupling protein 1, which leads to less body fat. Fucoxanthin also improves insulin resistance and promotes blood sugar balance in addition to reducing fat concentrations in the liver and blood.

Although no studies have been done to date to investigate the effects of kelp on fat metabolism specifically, Fucoxanthin is an active compound within kelp.

Cancer

Polyphenols are powerful and often forgotten nutritional compounds of seaweed that offer a multitude of health benefits for humans. Polyphenols are highly complex, structural components of cell walls, and are elements that we require for detoxification, protection against inflammation, and DNA repair. There are over 25,000 phytochemicals that have been identified to date.

Kelp and other seaweeds are abundant in polyphenols.

The first to note is flavonoids. Flavonoids are bioactive compounds found abundantly in kelp that contain anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. They reduce the risk of cancer through their ability to prevent the growth of cancerous cells and lower the risk of other chronic diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. Consumption of flavonoids also promotes benefits for your heart, and has been found to reduce total cholesterol and LDL (“bad” cholesterol), thus playing a role in preventing heart disease.

There is also some speculation that iodine and iodine-rich seaweed can inhibit breast tumor growth and development. This is supported by findings that women in Japan who have diets high in iodine-rich seaweed have lower rates of breast cancer.

Last, sulfated polysaccharides, (remember, the amazing fiber that is in seaweed?!) can reduce inflammation in the body and fight against cancer by supporting your body’s immune system. (Pereira #)

Conclusion

Kelp is truly one of the world’s most nutritious foods and eating more kelp is one of the things you can do to support your health, prevent disease, and feel better!

When you eat kelp, you are ensuring an adequate intake of vitamins, minerals, and other compounds that support thyroid function, gut health, heart health, brain health, and weight management.

At Barnacle Foods, we want to support you in making nutritious food choices. We offer a delicious and innovative line of products that make the healthy choice, the easy choice. Try our salsas, hot sauces, pickles, and seasonings to become a healthier you!

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