What are Sea Cucumbers?
Seeing sea cucumber on the menu is certainly not a very common sight in the West but they are regarded as a delicacy in a number of Asian countries. They may be known as sea cucumbers but they are not a vegetable, they are actually marine creatures that inhabit the ocean floor. There are a number of types of sea cucumber but they mostly resemble large caterpillars or worms with soft, tube-shaped bodies.
Although they can be found on the bottom of seas and oceans around the world, the vast majority of sea cucumbers inhabit the floor os the Pacific ocean. In the ocean, they are harvested by divers but they are also farmed commercially in artificial ponds.
You may be surprised to learn just how many health benefits sea cucumbers offer. In fact, recent studies have revealed that they may have natural anti-cancer properties. If you would like to learn more about this strange looking creature and how to use it, please read on.
- People have been fishing for sea cucumbers for over 150 years.
- Sea cucumbers are an ocean animal as opposed to a vegetable.
- They are a popular delicacy in many Asian cultures.
- They are highly nutritious and offer some amazing health benefits.
- They have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial benefits.
- In Chinese medicine, sea cucumber is commonly used to treat various conditions including cancer, arthritis, and impotence.
- Recent studies have revealed that sea cucumbers may have anti-cancer properties.
- As well as being eaten, sea cucumber are used to make tinctures, ointments, oils and topical creams.
- Sea cucumbers are extremely nutritious.
One of the best things about sea cumber is its incredible nutritional profile. It is also extremely low in calories and virtually fat free. This makes them a great choice for people looking to lose weight without losing out on important nutrients.
Four ounces of fresh or dried sea cucumber offers the following :
- 60 calories and less than a gram of fat.
- 14 grams of good quality protein.
- Vitamin A (8% of your recommended daily intake)
- Vitamin B2 / Riboflavin (60% of RDI)
- Vitamin B3 / Niacin (15% of RDI)
- Magnesium (4% of RDI)
- Calcium (4% of RDI)
Health Benefits of Sea Cucumbers
High in Protein
As well as being a rich source of many vitamins and minerals, sea cucumber contains powerful antioxidants and a number of other healthy compounds that can help tackle disease.
They are also extremely high in protein consisting of between 41 and 63% proteins depending on the species. Dietary protein can provide you with energy and keep you feeling fuller for longer meaning you are less likely to snack throughout the day.
Protein rich sea cucumbers can also help stabilize a person’s blood sugar level and may be useful for diabetics looking to keep blood sugar levels in check. (1)
Protein rich diets can also benefit the heart’s health, help manage blood pressure and boost bone density. (2) (3)
Sea cucumbers also contain a number of other useful substances that are known to benefit human health. They contain antioxidants in the shape of flavonoids and phenols both of which are known to reduce inflammation throughout the body. (4) (5)
These compounds are also known to lower the risk of a number of diseases such as heart disease and various degenerative disorders including Alzheimer’s disease. (6 7)
Sea cucumbers are also high in a compound called chondroitn sulfate which is a very important component found of the human connective tissues found in bone and cartilage. (8) People with osteoarthritis and other common bone conditions can benefit from foods containing this compound.
May Help Fight Cancer
Recent research into the anti cancer properties of sea cucumbers have proven very positive. They contain substances known cytotoxins, that have demonstrated the ability to fight cancerous cells.
One laboratory study looked at the effects of triterpene digycosiides present in a Vietnamese species of sea cucumber. The researchers found that these compounds were toxic to five different types of cancer cell including prostate, skin and breast cancer cells. (9)
Another study revealed that a triterpene isolated from sea cucumber helped reduce the growth and spread of liver cancer cells. (10)
These results are certainly positive and suggest that sea cucumber may have a potential role to play in the fight against cancer. However, researchers admit there is a long way to go and more studies are necessary in the future.
Animal studies also suggest that sea cucumbers could benefit the heart. We have already mentioned that the protein found in the animals can help boost the heart’s health but studies have also revealed that they can have a very positive effect on blood pressure levels.
One study looked at the effect of sea cucumber extract on rats with higher than normal blood pressure. The researchers found that the animals fed the sea cucumber extract has a significant reduction in blood pressure compared to rats not given the extract. (11)
As well as reducing blood pressure, sea cucumber may also help reduce cholesterol levels. One study again using rats found that sea cucumber extract led to a significant reduction in total cholesterol levels as well as triglyceride levels. (12)
Liver and Kidney Health
Studies done on rats have also demonstrated that sea cucumber could benefit the health of two other major organs – the heart and the kidney. According to one study, just a single dose of an extract made with sea cucumber led to a significant reduction in liver damage and oxidative stress. The same study also revealed that the extract helped improve kidney and liver function. (13)
Sea cucumber also contains excellent antimicrobial properties. One laboratory study found that sea cucumber extracts had a major inhibitory effect on a range of different bacteria including S.aureus and E.coli. (14)
Another study done on rats showed that sea cucumber helped fight sepsis which is a life threatening complication caused by bacteria. (15)
As well as its powerful antibacterial benefits, sea cucumber also has excellent anti-fungal properties. A number of studies have looked at the effects of sea cucumber on fungal infections with particular attention paid to its effect on Candida albicans.
One study looked at the effect of sea cucumber on 17 elderly patients at a a nursing home. The patients were all suffering from an oral overgrowth of candida and were treated with a jelly containing the sea cucumber. After just a week, those who were treated with the sea cucumber jelly extract showed a significant reduction in their candida overgrowth when compared to people not treated with the extract. (16)
How to Use Sea Cucumbers
Sea cucumbers are often used as an ingredient for a variety of dished in Asia and parts of the Middle East. Both the fresh animal and the dried variety can be used but most people use the dried variety in their cooking.
The dried sea cucumber is widely available in Asian countries. Knows as trepang or beche-de-mer, the dried cucumber is re-hydrated before being added to a wide range of dishes like stews, stir fries and soups. You can also eat sea cucumber raw, fried or pickled.
So what do they taste like? Sea cucumbers are actually quite bland and have the sort of slippery texture you may expect from their appearance. Because they are relatively tasteless, people usually infuse them with stronger flavors from spices, meats or seafood.
As well as being eaten, sea cucumber extract is available in supplementary form. Sea cucumber is also used as an ingredient in oils, tinctures, creams and cosmetics.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the health benefits of sea cucumber?
Sea cucumbers are extremely nutritious, low in calories and high in protein. They also contain a number of antioxidant compounds that can help fight disease and inflammation. According to research, sea cucumber may have anti-cancer properties that could play a future role in the fight against cancer.
They may also boost your heart’s health by reducing blood pressure and cholesterol. Studies have also found that sea cucumber has excellent antibacterial and anti-fungal benefits against a range of bacteria and fungi.
Are sea cucumbers dangerous to humans?
Sea cucumbers are not toxic to humans and have been eaten in certain parts of the word for centuries. However they may have an anticoagulant effect so people taking blood thinners like warfarin should avoid eating them or using supplements
Does sea cucumber taste good?
Sea cucumber has a slippery texture and a rather bland flavor. It is usually infused with herbs or meat flavors to give it more taste.
Is Sea Cucumber a vegetable?
No it isn’t. Despite the name, a sea cucumber is actually an ocean species of animal that inhabits the ocean floor.
Precautions and Side Effects
There is a commonly held misconception that sea cucumbers are poisonous but this is not the case. They have been consumed for centuries and are considered to be a relatively safe and highly nutritious food source. However, there are still certain concerns and some safety precautions that you should be aware of.
- Sea cucumbers have anticoagulant properties which means they may thin your blood. People taking Warfarin and other blood thinning medications should avoid using sea cucumber especially in the concentrated extract forms. Taking these supplements increases a person’s risk of bleeding.
- Sea cucumbers should be avoided by people who are allergic to shellfish.
- Studies done so far has been extremely positive and have supported their use for cancer, bacterial infection and heart disease.
- However, research into the effects of sea cucumber is at an early stage and clinical evidence is lacking.
Bear in mind also that the increasing demand for sea cucumber around the world has caused a significant decline in the animal’s population. They play a vital role in the ecosystems of ocean reefs and their decline may have a devastating impact. Look for sea cucumbers and sea cucumber products that have been fished or farmed using a sustainable method.
- Sea cucumbers are rarely consumed in the west but have been eaten in parts of Asia for centuries. They are also used to make supplements with a number of potential health benefits.
- Sea cucumbers are low in fat and calories and are packed with nutrition.
- They also contain a number of healthy compounds with antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-cancer benefits.
- According to research, sea cucumber may be good for the heart as well as the liver. Several studies have also demonstrated that certain compounds found in sea cucumbers may have anti-cancer potential.
- People with allergies to seafood and those who are taking blood thinning medication should avoid using sea cucumber extract or eating it fresh or dried.
Have you ever eaten this unusual but healthy seafood? Please let us know what you thought of the experience. We would be very happy to hear from you.