You might scrunch your nose up at seaweed’s unappetizing name, but you may want to unscrunch it long enough to consider what Asian cultures have known for centuries: This marine edible has a lot to offer. Here we explore seaweed benefits and how to introduce it to your diet.

What’s in It?

Seaweed—also known by the more palatable moniker sea vegetables—is a catchall, nonscientific term for various kinds of multicellular ocean algae. These plants come in an array of shapes and sizes, from big and leathery to delicate and ferny. They also vary in color, which is the main way they’re classified.

The Major Players

Edible seaweed species mostly fall into three categories: red, brown and green.

RED There are 7,000-plus species of red algae, including the popular edibles nori (aka laver), which is used to wrap sushi and also sold dried, roasted and salted as a packaged snack; dulse, a snack food that looks like red-leaf lettuce when fresh and tastes a bit like bacon (!) when dried; and Irish moss, used to make the gelatinous food-binder carrageenan.

BROWN Up to 2,000 species make up this group, of which one of the best known is kelp. Popular types of kelp include kombu, arame and wakame, all of which are found in Asian soups, rice dishes and snack foods.

GREEN This category is not strictly defined, but it includes chlorella, a freshwater algae often sold as a supplement, and sea lettuce, commonly found in Asian and northern European soups and salads.

Why It’s Good for You

Each seaweed species has a unique nutrient makeup, but all varieties tend to be high in fiber and provide some protein. Many contain various B vitamins, as well as minerals such as iodine, calcium and manganese.

A few studies suggest that seaweed consumption is a major reason Japanese women tend to have low breast-cancer rates, and other research hints that seaweed’s high fiber content can contribute to appetite control and weight loss. Another recent study found that seaweed can foster gut health by acting as a prebiotic for certain good gut bacteria.

But take note: For all these benefits, seaweed needs to be a major, regular part of your diet.

How to Eat It

Asian and some coastal European cultures point the way: Stir seaweed into soups and casseroles, and serve it in salads or as a topping for rice. Eat it as a snack (generally after it’s been dried, roasted and salted), or try it in a creative dish, like Nori Pesto with Spiralized Cucumber.

Q: I’m vegan. Can I count on seaweed for vitamin B12?

No. Although some forms of seaweed contain substantial amounts of B12, it’s often in a form the body can’t use. And even when the form is bioavailable, processing can diminish B12 levels, making unfortified seaweed an unreliable source.