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Ask away - independent health store advice on seaweed

Looking for advice on natural health and wellbeing? Your local independent health stores can offer a wealth of knowledge and expertise. This issue we speak to seaweed expert and Tir na n’Og, Sligo customer Prannie Rhatigan about sea vegetables. Prannie is a medical doctor with a lifetime experience of harvesting, cooking seaweed and author of the award-winning book Irish Seaweed Kitchen and new pocket Guide to Edible Seaweeds.

All seaweeds can be considered powerhouses of nutrients, containing minerals, vitamins and trace elements, whilst also having a range of phyto-defensive properties and containing some unique compounds which are not found in land plants. Seaweeds also contain polysaccharides, some of which act as soluble fibre, which means they are not absorbed by the digestive system and contain no calories.

They taste great and add texture to a variety of foods, have small amounts of very important fats, and two in particular have high levels of protein – nori (for sushi) and ulva, a green seaweed.

Not all seaweeds are the same and the benefits of one seaweed cannot be attributable to all. They are divided into browns, greens and reds and are as different to each other as say broccoli is to a carrot.

It is very difficult to be specific about the exact nutrient content of seaweeds. Huge variations occur depending on season, geographic location, and even within plants. While research is ongoing there is anecdotal evidence that seaweed can be helpful in the following areas of health. Of course much more research is needed.

Heart health

Increasingly research is showing that consumption of some seaweeds may be beneficial to heart health. There are two seaweeds, in particular thought to be beneficial for high blood pressure; laver or porphyra, some now called pyropia, also known as nori in Japan) and eastern wakame. Claims that these seaweeds can lower cholesterol and improve blood flow are also being investigated in Japan, and are showing very promising results.

Weight control

Researchers at Newcastle University (UK) found that alginate from seaweed can strengthen the mucus lining of the gut wall, and thereby slow digestion, providing a longer feeling of fullness.

Chest tonic

According to Chinese medicine seaweed can disperse phlegm, and this seems to be backed up by use in Ireland. Every grandmother has and continues to use carrageen to treat coughs and chest infections see the recipe for Carrageen Drink in our Immunity feature on page 32). A team at Saga University, Japan found that a chemical in seaweed was three times more effective than a conventional ‘flu remedy.

Ease aching limbs and soothe skin

Ireland has a long tradition of seaweed baths. Seaweed baths have been used for centuries to help relieve the symptoms of arthritis and rheumatism. The understanding is that the seaweeds act by conducting heat deep into the muscles and joints.

Cooking with seaweed

Seaweeds can be added to soups and stocks, biscuits and cakes to just about everything. Some of the most delicious to ask about:

• Dulse or dillisk (palmaria palmata) – This purple/red seaweed has a soft texture and spicy flavour.

• Laver or nori (porphyra/pyropia spp.) – the key ingredient in traditional Welsh laverbread. Particularly high in protein and exceptionally rich in pro-vitamin A.

• Carrageen or Irish moss (mostly chondrus crispus, can also include mastocarpus stellatus) – makes an excellent blancmange pudding.

• Sea spaghetti or thong weed (himanthalia elongata) – mix one third of it with normal spaghetti. Children love this spaghetti seaweed that turns from brown to bright green when you cook it. Adds nuttiness to salads.

• Alaria esculenata (means ‘edible’) – a North Atlantic equivalent of Japanese wakame (undaria pinnatifida).

• Kelps (laminaria/saccharina spp,) – traditionally used for soups. Within World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for iodine, do not exceed 1mg per day.

• Bladderwrack (fucoids – fucus vesiculosus) – great in soups. It is very promising medicinally.

• Asco (ascophyllum nodosum) rockweed – good in soups and smoothies.

• Green seaweeds (ulva spp.) – for Vitamin B12 in particular, also in nori.

• Serrated wrack (fucus serratus) – for cosmetic use such as face masks and baths.

So what are you waiting for? Get into your local health food store and start to enjoy the benefits of small amounts of a wide variety of seaweeds harvested by local Irish harvesters. Remember to start slowly and carefully and to use a wide variety on a regular basis rather than a large amount occasionally. Enjoy experimenting.

Prannie Rhatigan runs courses in identifying and cooking with seaweed.

Check out www.theorganiccentre.ie and www.eithnasbythesea.ie.

Who's who and what's what at Tir na nOg

Mary McDonnell, her sister and brother opened health food shop Tir na nOg in Sligo town in 1980. “Can you remember a world without bottled water?” she says. “Our big sellers were bran, wheatgerm and honey.

“Our focus right from the start was on quality and taste and also on value for money. In recent years we feel that our customers have gone back to a simplicity and traditional way of eating. Now vitamin C, echinacea and garlic do well but our biggest seller is oatflakes to make porridge.

“Our main focus is on organic fruit and vegetables and we have a special love for local producers, especially seaweed. Our shelves are stocked with fabulous local honey and farmhouse cheeses. We regard ourselves as food pioneers because that is where our heart is.

“Our customers are from all age groups. We have a broad spectrum of customers from older people buying garlic and porridge; vegans looking for superfoods; mums looking for healthy snacks for children; students looking for simple things to cook; people who want something tasty, wholesome and of reasonable value and we get visitors from other countries in the summer.

“We think there is a new simplicity out there in recent years and people are going back to eating real food. Sligo is a small town and we cater for all tastes. We are customer led – we really listen to what our customers are saying and react to that. We only sell what we know about and love.

“As well as healthy food we also sell supplements, natural cosmetics, household goods and herbal teas. Our fridges are stocked with dairy alternatives with milk, yogurt and cheese as well as loose olives and sundried tomatoes.

“Tir na nOg has a good fun atmosphere and enjoyable shopping experience.”

Visit: Tir na nOg, Gratton St, Sligo Look for: Unique local honey from Co Sligo – honeycomb in season, pollen and wax.

Speak to: Managers Nora and Mary McDonnell

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