You probably haven’t heard of this brain-healthy ‘superfood’

Sea vegetables are among the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, yet here in the West, these brain superfoods are largely neglected, says brain health expert Deane Alban.

Kombu. Dulse. Arame.

They’re probably not in your vocabulary, and almost certainly not on your plate.

Yet for older adults concerned about memory loss and the threat of Alzheimer’s, they represent a real missed opportunity. These strange-sounding foods are sea vegetables, a brain wonder food that’s mostly absent from the American diet.

“Sea vegetables are some of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet but, at least here in the West, are a largely neglected group of superfoods for the brain,” writes Deane Alban of Be Brain Fit.

The term “brain superfood” gets thrown around a lot these days, often for foods that don’t live up to the label.

But when it comes to helping keep your mind sharp, Alban says sea vegetables are the real thing.

“To be considered a ‘brain superfood,’ a food should contain nutrients that are specifically critical for brain health,” she says. “Sea vegetables contain many compounds essential for the brain mostly in the form of minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. They also contain inositol, which is rare in the diet but is needed for communication between brain cells to occur.”

Alban notes that sea vegetables are a staple of the diet in Okinawa, Japan, one of the so-called “Blue Zones” where it’s unusually common for people to live to the age of 100 and Alzheimer’s and other chronic diseases are nearly non-existent.

“No one knows for sure the role any one part of the Okinawan diet plays, but apparently sea vegetables contain a handful of unique antioxidants that are thought to be neuroprotective,” she says. “Sea vegetables are also said to contain all 56 minerals essential for health in bioavailable forms.”

Unfortunately, the Japanese appetite is headed in the wrong direction. The rate of Alzheimer’s is rising in Japan and other nations as people there turn away from traditional diets in favor of Western food.

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Meanwhile, here in the United States, healthier food choices such as sea vegetables remain a hard sell.

The one sea vegetable you may have sampled, even if you don’t recognize the name, is nori. Those are the sheets of seaweed used to wrap sushi.

Alban calls nori a “nutritional powerhouse” that’s high in inositol and choline, both of which can be beneficial to cognition. She says it’s also an excellent source of vitamin B12.

The traditional American diet supplies most of us with all the B12 we need,  but as we age, our body may become less able to absorb B12 from the food we eat. The resulting deficiency in B12 can lead to depression, memory loss or dementia.

“The deficiency can be quite serious and is worryingly rampant among high-risk groups such as seniors, and people with digestive disorders, especially those who take acid blockers,” Alban says.

“Since B12 is found almost exclusively in animal protein, almost half of lacto-ovo vegetarians and over 90 percent of vegans are B12-deficient,” she adds. “Nori has been found to be the only substantial vegetable source of vitamin B12.”

Now that sushi has won its way into the Western diet, I asked Alban if she thought other sea vegetables might catch on here, given how beneficial they are to brain health. But she’s dubious about that.

“Unfortunately, the modern palate has been jaded from too much overly flavorful processed food high in salt, sugar and spices,” she says. “I don’t see sea vegetables becoming a staple in most Western households.”

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But if you’re feeling adventurous and willing to try something new and different for the sake of your cognition, there are ways to ease yourself into eating sea vegetables.

One option to consider is making your own sushi at home.

“If you visit any health food store, you’ll find nori sheets to make your own sushi or California rolls,” Alban says. “Some sheets that have been toasted and flavored which you can eat ‘as is’ or crumble and add to salads, rice or just about anything. Some of these come in very flavorful options like wasabi and teriyaki. You can also heat a little oil and drop a sheet in just for a few seconds. It crisps up nicely and is much like kale chips.”

Another option I favor is seaweed salad, which I discovered recently, and find quite tasty. Alban seconds that suggestion.

“Seaweed salad is usually made with wakame,” she says. “Second to sushi, I think it’s the next best option for Western palates. Many people may have already had it at Asian restaurants. It contains a similar nutrient profile to other sea vegetables and so would be a good choice for neuroprotection.”

Alban says her interest in sea vegetables began years ago, when she taught macrobiotic cooking, which is based on traditional Japanese cuisine. Here are some additional choices that are good for beginners:

  • Agar-agar — Comes in white translucent bars or flakes. It’s tasteless and is used as a thickener. Alban says: “You can add it to fruit juice to make a jello-like dessert.”
  • Kombu — Comes in thick strips and can be added to soups and stews. Alban says: “It was traditionally added to cooked beans to make them more digestible and adds very little flavor.”
  • Arame — Has a delicate flavor and makes a nice addition to salads. Alban says: “It’s also delicious sauteed with onions and carrots.”
  • Dulse — Available in shaker bottles and can be added to food as a condiment.

Alban says a typical serving of sea vegetables is 1/3 cup of whole leaf, 1 teaspoon of flakes, or 1/2 teaspoon of powdered vegetables.

If you want to learn more about sea vegetables and other brain-healthy foods — including kale, avocados, walnuts and fermented foods — read the Be Brain Fit post on “12 Brain Foods That Supercharge Your Memory, Focus & Mood.”

Tony Dearing may be reached at tdearing@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @TonyDearing. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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