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Seahorse Sushi

As a vegetarian, I don’t eat many things that come from the sea.  But I do love sushi.  Vegetables wrapped in rice and seaweed are not only fun to eat, but they can make a nice, relatively light dinner when eating out (provided you watch the number of rolls you consume — those small things do add up!).  Recently, however, there’s been a bit of a damper put on my relationship with this bite-sized food.

A friend told me that she had just found out that sushi wasn’t really vegetarian.  Why?  Because of the seaweed.  Apparently seahorses get caught with it and are ground-up during processing.  I greeted this knowledge with disgust that quickly turned to denial.  I didn’t want to stop eating sushi, but then again, the thought of contributing to the deaths of cute little seahorses — and then eating them — was a little too much to take.

[Random seahorse fact of the day: did you know that it’s the male seahorse that gets pregnant and gives birth — to thousands of little tiny baby seahorses!  How cool is that?]

Not being one to just accept things at face-value, I decided to do a little research of my own.  In the process, I’ve learned more about seaweed growth and harvesting than I ever  wanted.  And (not surprisingly), I didn’t really get a clear answer to  my question — there are so many factors involved that the whole thing can be a little murky.  But I figured I’d share what I learned, as well some tips for those who may be concerned that they’re unknowingly consuming “seahorse sushi.”

Everything you (n)ever wanted to know about seaweed

First things first

First of all, I just want to point out (for matters of clarity) that seaweed is not technically a plant.  Although it is often referred to as the “vegetable of the sea”, it’s actually a form of algae, which (if you remember from Intro Bio) are organisms that are much simpler than plants.  Seaweed is a pretty broad term for the most complex forms of marine algae and has more in common with plants than animals since it produces food through photosynthesis.

Secondly, there are many many types of seaweed that have a wide variety of uses.  The specific type that is most often used in Sushi is called Nori.  For the sake of this post, that is the type I have focused on.

Nori Harvesting & Processing

I will not go into a lot of detail here, but wanted to highlight a few key points about how Nori is harvested and processed.  For a great, in-depth resource (with pictures!) you can visit Michael Guiry’s Seaweed Site.

  • Nori starts off its life as little seeds grown indoors, but once the seeds have sprouted into young plants, they are taken out to the sea on nets.  They spend the rest of their growing days suspended in the water.
  • Harvesting and processing of nori is mostly automatic, controlled by advanced machinery.
  • Once harvested, the nori is basically rinsed in freshwater, drained, and then put into an oven to dry. Again, this is a highly mechanized process.  These dried sheets are then packaged and shipped all over the world.

As you can see, there is a definite possibility that the nori crop can become infested with “bugs” (i.e. seahorses and mini shrimp) while growing.  Which means potential bycatch in the harvest — or unwanted marine creatures that are caught by mistake.  And since the process of making the dried sheets is pretty automated, it is also possible that this goes unnoticed.  There are electronic eyes that check the nori to make sure there are no major problems, but apparently this process can be pretty difficult, since the final product is made up of multiple layers of toasted sheets.

What makes this a little unclear is that for quality assurance purposes, companies that produce nori say that they make sure they do not have any sort of infestation when harvesting crops.  But it’s hard to know if something accidentally got caught with the crop and if so, whether they made it through the cleaning process…and what the odds are that you have actually consumed a little piece of one as part of your delicious yam roll.  Gross…but possible.

So, in the absence of anything clearer than chance, I turned to a resource for individuals who have some pretty restrictive dietary laws: Jewish Kosher guidelines.

Types of Nori

According to the Chicago Rabbinic Council (CRC), I learned that there are three types of nori.  Only one type may qualify as kosher, and fortunately that’s the one used to make sushi (most of the time).

The types:

  • Yaki Nori — the type used for sushi.  It does not have any added flavors, and is toasted, making it most likely to be “bug free”.  Furthermore, most companies have dedicated production lines for each type, so there is little risk for cross contamination.
  • Ajitsuke Nori — this type is often used in soups and flavored with soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and shrimp.  Because of this, CRC says ajitsuke can never be kosher, and I’d say it doesn’t sound very veg-friendly either.
  • Fresh Nori Sheets — this is the “worst” of the bunch.  Since these sheets aren’t toasted, they can easily be infested with bugs.  For obvious reasons, these are never kosher…and probably best avoided by those who don’t eat meat as well.  I guess some sushi shops use fresh frozen nori, so if this is a concern, be sure to check.

So what does this mean? In order to ensure that the nori YOU consume has not been infested with bugs, you should only buy certified kosher nori.  This stuff is looked at pretty closely before it gets the kosher seal of approval.  Obviously going out for sushi gives you a little less control over where the nori has actually come from.  In this case, I’d say you have three options: call the restaurant, find out where they get their nori, and then talk to the plant where it is produced; 2.) order wraps without seaweed (if available);  or 3.) just eat the sushi.

The Bigger Picture

photo via flickr by edbierman

Regardless of whether or not I could stomach the fact that I was possibly eating traces of seahorses or shrimp in my veggie rolls, my initial reaction was dismay over the fact that so many cute little sea creatures were getting harmed in the process of harvesting seaweed.  It just seemed so sad…and so unnecessary.  That in and of it self was almost enough to make me swear it off altogether.  Until I stepped back a little bit.  Unfortunately, the killing of animals (or marine life) is always a possibility when harvesting food on a large scale.  And even when farmers are harvesting land crops, animals die — accidentally from the machinery or by ingesting the pesticides, or intentionally by getting caught in traps or eating poison.  While this is sad, I can’t exactly swear off all plants too.

So what’s a person to do?  Ultimately I think all we can do is learn the facts, and then make the decision that we can live with.  It’s wonderful to have a cause that you fight for, or to be careful about what you are putting into your body.  But there comes a point when you just have to figure you’re doing the best you can…and be okay with that.  I don’t mean to sound defeatist here, but unless we all produce all our own food, or can eat local and organic all the time, the reality is that we can’t fix everything.

This has been an extremely long post and if you’re still reading, thanks for sticking with me so far.  I want to end with 2 quick points.

Seaweed is pretty ubiquitous and is used in many different industries.  There are many health benefits to consuming it, since it’s packed with vitamins, minerals, and is a good source of fiber, protein, and omega-3s.  Also, the Vegetarian Society of the UK (the Veg Society) lists carrageen — a type of seaweed — as a vegetarian alternative to gelatin.  The by-product of this (carrageenan) is used in all sorts of things as an emulsifier…including the soy milk I drank this morning.

Finally, if you’re in the market for your own nori, apparently Gold Mine Natural Food Company sells some that is Organic, Kosher,  and Vegan.  I’m sure there are others out there as well.

What do you think of this whole issue? Do you eat seaweed/sushi or have you given it up altogether?

3 Responses to Seahorse Sushi

  1. Thanks for the info. I guess I’m not surprised just sad. Poor little Sea Horses and shrimps :(

  2. most sushi are kosher, parve, tasty and affordable, even if not, there is always a replacement to make it kohser.
    Abe Green´s last post ..Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet

  3. Why do folks get so upset about these kind of things but forget about bacteria and microscopic critters. They matter just as much if not more.

    I know its laughable to contemplate the above as a stance. But if it doesn’t fit as a rule at this level then I am afraid it does not fit at any other level in my book.

    Interesting read however.

    PS the act of breathing kills millions of Aeroplankton a day. They exist in the air and we injest them regularily causing harm and death to them. Do we stop breathing to accommodate them? lol

    reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeroplankton

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