Where most swimmers steered clear of slimy strands of seaweed, a young Anya Neher sought them out in waters off California's coast.
"I used to eat little bits of seaweed when no one was looking," the 39-year-old Ashland resident told fellow participants in a recent seaweed cooking class.
"I would just take a little bite out of some kelp or something," Neher says. "I think I just liked the salty taste."
It's a craving familiar to 49-year-old Sharon Lawrence, the evening's instructor. Traveling around the country in a motor home for the past three years, Lawrence, her husband and teenage daughter found that the further they strayed from the coast and their Florida roots, the more they hankered for seaweed.
"We've been incorporating seaweed in our life for a long time," Lawrence says. "It's just got so many incredible nutrients in it from the sea."
Apart from seaweed's laundry list of vitamins and minerals, nutrition and health experts agree that the various species of plants — all edible — impart one of the highest levels of iodine, vital to healthy thyroid function, and are an excellent source of soluble fiber, a key component to managing cholesterol.
"Like many other plants, it has anti-inflammatory properties and anti-viral properties," says Medford dietician Julie Anderson.
Similar to soy products, seaweed contains phytoplant-based estrogen, which helps balance hormone levels, Anderson says. The dietician says that depending on a client's medical diagnosis, she suggests either seaweed supplements for the skeptical or recipes for preparing seaweed if clients are adventurous eaters.
Most people are familiar with seaweed's role in Japanese food: as a wrapper for sushi or even as soup and salad vegetables. Lawrence's recent class introduced Neher and a half-dozen other home cooks to the concept of seaweed for breakfast, on a sandwich and even in a chocolate pie.
"The dessert was a nice plus," says Jill Krumpeck, 47, of Jacksonville, who strives to include seaweed in her family's diet since she started eating it to lower her cholesterol.
"They don't even notice the flavor at all," Krumpeck says. "I'm always looking for ways to hide it."
One of her strategies for disguising seaweed also is among the simplest, Krumpeck says. She boils a strip of kombu with beans, soup or stew. The kelp, a natural flavor enhancer, leaches nutrients into the cooking liquid but doesn't alter the essential taste of other ingredients.
"If people are just going to try one, that would be the one I would suggest," says Mary Shaw, culinary educator at Ashland Food Co-op, which sponsored Lawrence's class.
"And it doesn't have a fishy taste — it doesn't really have any taste."
Kombu, Shaw explains, also makes beans easier to digest. Equally approachable, the seaweed mucilage known as agar thickens her chocolate pie without tainting the filling's sweetness.
Stuffed with spinach, bell peppers and onions, the frittata that Lawrence and husband Paul Gerardi eat every morning also camouflages the addition of seaweed, toasted dulse in this case. But cooks interested in exploring seaweed's true flavors can eat dulse as Lawrence and Gerardi do — on a sandwich with lettuce and tomato. They've dubbed it a D.L.T.
"It had a really nice, brown, toasted flavor," says Linda Kreisman, 64, of Ashland.
"I was pleasantly surprised that there was only one there that was really rubbery," she says, referring to Lawrence's preparation of a salad common in Japanese restaurants made with cucumbers and the seaweed known as wakame.
Although Lawrence and Gerardi tried to expand seaweed's repertoire, a nod to the culture that has popularized its consumption in the United States and elsewhere was unavoidable.
"Sea vegetables have been consumed for more than 1,000 years," Anderson says. "The Japanese cultures have some of the lowest disease rates on the planet."
More recently, naturopathic physicians such as Ellen Heinitz have found sea vegetables help the body stave off herpes simplex and shingles. Algae, such as chlorella, bind to heavy metals and remove them from the body, the Grants Pass practitioner adds.
"Some of the species of seaweed we're finding (have) great immune-support benefits," Heinitz says.
"It makes so much sense to me that they help detoxify the body from heavy metals," she says.
Seaweed has long been recognized as a clean-up tool in aquatic environments, where it soaks up fish waste and excess nutrients near hatcheries. But seaweed's status as a marine sponge also means it could retain any contaminants present in water that sustained it before harvest.
Most seaweeds used in supplements, Heinitz says, are grown in contained vats. Shaw recommends purchasing seaweed from a known source, such as Mendocino Sea Vegetable Company, which harvests wild plants in Northern California. The origins of some seaweeds sold in Asian markets may be hard to discern, she adds.
Buying the highest quality possible, Anderson says, particularly when a food is dehydrated, ensures that most of its nutritional value remains intact.
Even if a few of its beneficial properties dried up, seaweed would still have one of the most favorable calorie-to-nutrient ratios in the food world, an attribute that impresses Liz Birmingham, who also appreciates seaweed's low glycemic index.
"I always tried to imagine what you would do with it," says the 52-year-old Ashland resident, who observed seaweed harvests along Puget Sound for the 20 years she lived in Seattle yet only recognized its prevalence in sushi.
"I'm just kind of realizing there's a lot you can do with it," she says. "The dessert was surprisingly delicious — made with seaweed!"