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Kelp wranglers

Harvested from the near-shore waters off the Southern Oregon coast and sold as munchie sheets, snacks, capsules and powders, seaweed is being marketed by a Williams company as just about the most nutritious and disease-fighting food you can put in your mouth.

Seaweed? In my mouth? You heard right — and don't go thinking it's like those piles of stinking stuff you see on the beach. Your flinching response, called "phycophobia," is irrational.

"Seaweed is a food and a medicine with many health benefits," says Kari Rein, co-owner of NatureSpirit Herbs. "The body recognizes it, molecularly, and craves it, especially with children. They go wild on snackable seaweed."

NatureSpirit Herbs harvests sea vegetables from the Pacific in environmentally respectful ways, then dries it in Williams, where it is packaged and shipped to market. The company sells dried nori, kelp, wakame and kombu.

Some of the veggies can be eaten like salty snacks. Or you can cook them (they swell back up to normal size as they absorb water) with veggies, rice, beans and other foods. Sea-vegetable powder can be dusted on salads, vegetables, rice and popcorn.

As for taste, if you've had the mechanically harvested kelp or seaweed powders and found them "fishy," that's because mass harvesting allows shrimp, shellfish and other sea life to get in the mix and, well, they rot. This isn't that stuff, says James Jungwirth, the other co-owner of NatureSpirit.

Some types of sea vegetables are culled from tide pools, says Jungwirth. At other times, the seaweed harvesters will kayak offshore to find less accessible varieties. "Ours is all hand-havested at low tide ... rinsed clean, driven back here in 400- to 800-pound loads on the same day and put on screens for the sun to dry it completely in the next day. We only take a fourth of any species, so they grow back fully within the year."

The taste is sweet, engaging and amazing, says Jungwirth. You can tell they are "nutrient-dense" and packed full of the range of minerals, vitamins and electrolytes. Sea veggies are big on iodine and also polysaccarides — that's the slippery-feeling stuff on seaweed that's intensely "immune-enhancing," says Jungwirth.

Seaweeds come in red, brown and green varieties, with the green especially noted for its ability to suppress viruses, including outbreaks of herpes, he notes.

Jungwirth, an herbalist and nutritional health care practitioner, is a leader in organizing a state-run seaweed harvesting protocol and a frequent presenter at conferences. His online article "Seaweeds and Human Health," at www.naturespiritherbs.com, details health benefits, including immune-system boosting, detoxing from heavy metals and help for type-2 diabetes, thyroid disease, obesity, cancers, heart disease, osteoporosis, inflammation and others.

Some of the seaweeds are packaged in capsules with names like Bladderwrack, Red Marine Algae, Kombu and Sea Vegetable Blend.

To understand seaweed, you have to understand the sea and how it was the cradle of all plant and animal life, says Jungwirth. The sea has all the same minerals and trace nutrients we have in our blood — and we need to keep it that way, with the "inner ocean" being the same as the outer ocean, says Jungwirth. Many land-based foods come from depleted soils and are heavily processed, and don't come close to the nutritional profile of sea veggies.

Learning to cook with seaweeds opens up big doors, says Rein. You can make marinades and other concoctions that combine sea veggies with olive oil, soy sauce, ginger and garlic.

For cooking hints, see John Lewallen's "Sea Vegetable Gourmet Cookbook and Wildcrafter's Guide" and the company website, www.naturespiritherbs.com.

You can also go online and click on the link in this story for "Cooking From The Sea," an Oregon Healthy Living magazine article by Sarah Lemon that contains more information and recipes.

James harvesting Kombu - Photo by Jamie Francis