When I first tasted samphire I nearly swooned with happiness. This ordinary-looking green vegetable, a bit like skinny asparagus or cactus, revealed itself in all its sea-flavoured, salty glory in just one bite. There is nothing like it; even the word samphire suggests something dazzlingly exotic.
That first bite was only three or four years ago. I don’t know what took so long – samphire is no ludicrous foreign import, some Johnny-come-lately food fad. It is native to these isles, grows wild and abundantly along shore lines and until recently not many people had heard of it. Now it would be unpardonable for any decent seafood restaurant not to feature samphire when it’s in season. No other vegetable can compete as an accompaniment to seafood dishes.
Growing near the sea, samphire is chock full of minerals. I’m particularly interested in the iodine content, because iodine deficiency is a serious concern for us all.
This trace element and component of thyroid hormone is found in seafood, seaweed and dairy foods (but only because it is routinely added to cattle feed). Iodine deficiency is a major global problem, as it can cause stunting and mental disability, and is recognised by the World Health Organization as the most common preventable cause of brain damage in the world. Deficiency is rife, because most of the iodine on the planet is in the sea, not in the soil. This is largely thanks to glaciation during the last Ice Age, which exposed the iodine-rich layers of soil to rain, flooding and wind, and washed them into the sea. Soil erosion has continued ever since, making us vulnerable to iodine deficiency. Because of the detrimental effects on mental development in the unborn child, deficiency during pregnancy is a particularly serious issue. A study published in 2008 of 31 women in Surrey, which measured iodine concentration in urine, found that approximately 30 per cent of the women were mildly to moderately iodine-deficient. More recently, a study of more than 700 teenage girls from all over the UK found that more than two-thirds were iodine-deficient. Because iodine is part of thyroid hormone, deficiency is also linked to hypothyroidism so will also affect metabolism, energy and the rate at which you burn fat. You should only take iodine supplements if medical tests show you are deficient, but eat samphire at every possible opportunity for the sheer joy of it.
Skeaff, S.A. (2011) Iodine deficiency in UK schoolgirls. The Lancet, 378(9803):1623-1624
Rayman, M., Sleeth, M., Walter, A. & Taylor, A. (2008) Iodine deficiency in UK women of child-bearing age, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 67 (OCE8):E399.