Friday, April 15, 2011


Seaweed has been flying off the store shelves in recent weeks in China, Russia and many other countries - metaphorically speaking, of course. Why? Because people believe it can protect them against nuclear radiation - what everyone seems to be afraid of these days.

Yes, it is true - most types of seaweed such as nori, wakame, dulse, kombu, arame and other sea vegetables, contain large (though variable) quantities of iodine 127 - a trace element that our bodies need. This is the "good iodine" used in potassium iodine pills and in iodized salt, which have also sold out in many places. This good iodine helps protect our thyroid gland by giving it what it needs so that it won't take up the radioactive kind if we happen to be exposed. It's a bit like giving your puppy a tough rubber toy to chew on, so it won't eat your carpets (as mine did recently).

But then there is the other point of view. Can seaweed - especially seaweed harvested in the Pacific ocean near Japan, itself be absorbing the radiation that is being released into the sea from the Fukushima power plant? Such fears are making some people wary about eating seaweed. I have a friend who used to order seaweed salad every time we ate out, who has even started taking the nori wrap off her sushi. Several countries such as Australia and Indonesia, have halted or restricted seaweed imports from Japan in case it is contaminated with radioactive iodine.

True, seaweed can in theory absorb the dangerous iodine-131 from nuclear waste as well as all those good minerals and other substances that give it such a healthy reputation. Unfortunately, the seaweed can't tell the difference between the safe kind of iodine and the unsafe kind. But don't get too nervous. Remember, the ocean is a big place, not all seaweed comes from the ocean near Fukushima (even Japan imports seaweed from other countries as well), and many seaweed farms in the disaster area have (sadly) been wiped out by the tsunami. On top of all this, much of the iodine-131 in seaweed would usually have degraded before it reaches our plate.

What I am saying is that the risk of dangerous doses of radioactive iodine from your seaweed salad or miso soup or sushi are pretty small. But also, you shouldn't eat huge amounts of those wonderful sea vegetables thinking that they will protect you if nuclear radiation does come your way in air currents, water or food. This is not a case of "more is better." Too much "good" iodine can be toxic to your body.



Anonymous said...

At this stage I think a lot of people are over-reacting. As the blog says, the ocean is a big place and the chances of you, sitting in NYC, and eating seaweed from Fukishimi on your sushi plate is next to zero.

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