Why should we talk about and compare nutrient density in foods?
Some people have been asking me about what we mean when we say that seaweed is a super, nutrient-dense food. This doesn’t mean that seaweed is a better food than another food; rather it means that seaweed fills the niche in our menu that delivers a lot of diverse nutritional needs per calories ingested. This compares to other foods where the nutritional density is low per energy delivered, but that does not mean that they are not still important in our diets. Seaweeds do not offer a lot of energy or calories, but because our food system is dominated by empty calorie foods, we need to find the sources of dense nutrition to add to the empty calorie foods – that way we can offset the challenge of an energy rich/nutrient poor foods system. Adding seaweed each day is one of the easiest ways to do this because it is just so nutritionally dense, and therefore you don’t need lots of it to make that happen.
Check out the table below to understand that foods come in all sorts of packages that we need to mix and match - that is what a recipe does.
For example – if you eat refined grains and white bread a lot, then you would need to eat over 4kg per day!!!! to get adequate essential nutrients. If you change that to wholegrain sources then you only need to eat 700g! Still a lot though, which is why as humans we formulate recipes and mix and match energy, fat, protein or fibre rich foods with a range of vitamin and micronutrient dense foods. Seaweed being one of those with superb nutritional density per calorie. You don’t need much seaweed to get the health benefits it offers, and if you include it in a wholefood and diverse diet you will cover the bases that you need for the healthiest life you can live.
Globally deficient micronutrients
A recent publication identified the priority nutrients that are deficient globally and that are therefore a cause for malnutrition and disease states in the world today. These are mostly iron, zinc, folate, vitamin A, calcium, and vitamin B12. Deficiencies in these vary to a degree across individuals, populations and geography, but globally they are considered deficient in most food systems. Although research identifies that seaweeds and shellfish are amongst the most nutrient dense and sustainable sources of foods, seaweed is still not listed in the global databases for nutrient dense foods as it hasn’t been on the radar as a mainstream food in the western cuisine! This is where you can help to change that by making seaweed a part of your daily diet, and one of the ways that you can stay on top of a complete nutritional intake without a lot of effort. Just a bit of seaweed a day goes a long way.
Figure adapted from Beal and Ortenzi 2022
Because most of us are not used to including seaweed outside of sushi into our diets, we created a range of familiar foods, condiments and supplements for “3 degrees of easy” to get seaweed. It is hard to know which seaweed, how much and in what foods different seaweeds work well. For example, it doesn’t make sense to wrap sushi in kelp as your iodine levels would shoot through the roof! Conversely, it doesn’t make sense to lace salt with nori because the iodine levels are not high enough. And there are only a few seaweed species or seaweed ingredients that are rich in gut fibre, protein and iron sources.
People that question plant-sourced nutrition
Take note that there has been an odd agenda about mineral-rich plants not being able to provide bioavailable nutrients, or that they contain “anti-nutrients”, phytates, that block absorption. This topic has been overblown and it is only in very high phytate diets that are not nutrient-dense, or in people that rarely eat phytates and can't digest them well, that this effect might be seen. It is largely eliminated if you keep the mineral-absorbing enhancers onions, garlic and Vitamin C rich foods in your favorite dishes. Fermenting foods also reduces phytate levels and it is also why the sprouting concept of foods has become popular, but you don’t really need to go that far to be able to absorb nutrients with a diverse and healthy gut flora and lots of different types of vegetables.
These so-called anti-nutrients have been given a bad-name, because they can be an important part of supporting your natural defences against cancer cells and even reducing mineral loss from your bones. As long as you are eating nutrient dense foods regularly your micronutrient uptake will be above and beyond that on a highly processed low nutrient dense SAD (Standard American/Australian Diet) and you really don’t need to stress about anti-nutrients.
Keep it simple and diverse
A great example of how to eat an energy, fibre and Vitamin C-rich food product that is good for you but not so nutrient-dense, and how to increase the nutrient density to keep all energy, fibre, protein, oils, minerals, vitamins, and anti-oxidants in balance, is the humble potato. Potatoes have kept civilisations alive and thriving for thousands of years and are such a great source of dietary fibre for the digestive system, and also include good amounts of vitamin C. But they are not so nutrient-dense so our Dense Potato recipe turns all of that around.
Potatoes will be important for sustainable food production on the planet, and we can grow potatoes without pesticides and many organic varieties are available in the market today. The irony is that good potato production also benefits by the application of seaweed extracts for organic farming solutions. Everything is connected, land to sea and back again through you.
The best diet is diverse, plant rich and stress-free – I think that our Dense Potato recipe goes a long way in delivering that.