While you may not be familiar with sea cucumbers, they’re considered a delicacy in many Asian cultures.
Not to be confused with vegetables, sea cucumbers are marine animals.
They live on sea floors throughout the world, but the greatest population is found in the Pacific Ocean.
Most sea cucumbers resemble large worms or caterpillars and have soft, tubular bodies.
They are gathered by divers or farmed commercially in large, artificial ponds.
In addition to their culinary appeal, sea cucumbers are used in traditional folk medicine to treat a wide variety of ailments.
This article looks into the nutritional benefits of sea cucumbers and whether they are worth adding to your diet.
How Are Sea Cucumbers Used?
Sea cucumbers have been used as a food source and medicinal ingredient in Asian and Middle Eastern countries for centuries.
In fact, they have been fished from the Pacific islands for over 170 years (1).
These slug-like animals are used either fresh or dried in various dishes, though the dried form is by far the most commonly used.
Dried sea cucumber, known as beche-de-mer or trepang, is rehydrated and added to recipes likes soups, stews and stir-fries.
Sea cucumbers can also be eaten raw, pickled or fried.
They have a slippery texture and bland taste, so they’re usually infused with flavor from other ingredients like meats, other seafood or spices.
They are often combined with produce like Chinese cabbage, winter melon and shiitake mushrooms.
Sea cucumber is also found in traditional Chinese medicine, where it’s believed to have healing properties and used to treat ailments like arthritis, cancer, frequent urination and impotence (2).
Creams, tinctures, oils and cosmetics infused with sea cucumber extract, as well as oral sea cucumber supplements, are also popular in traditional Chinese medicine.
Summary Sea cucumber is a popular ingredient in Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine and has medicinal value in traditional Chinese medicine.
Sea Cucumbers Are Incredibly Nutritious
Sea cucumbers are an excellent source of nutrients.
Four ounces (112 grams) of sea cucumber delivers (3):
- Calories: 60
- Protein: 14 grams
- Fat: less than one gram
- Vitamin A: 8% of the RDI
- B2 (Riboflavin): 60% of the RDI
- B3 (Niacin): 16% of the RDI
- Calcium: 4% of the RDI
- Magnesium: 4% of the RDI
Sea cucumbers are very low in calories and fat and high in protein, making them a weight loss-friendly food.
They also contain many powerful substances, including antioxidants, which are good for your health.
Adding protein sources to meals and snacks helps keep you full by slowing down the emptying of your stomach.
This can help you eat less and stabilize your blood sugar levels (6).
Summary Sea cucumbers are packed with nutrients. They're low in calories and fat and high in protein, making them a weight loss-friendly food.
Packed With Beneficial Compounds
Not only are sea cucumbers packed with protein, vitamins and minerals, they also contain several substances that may benefit overall health.
Sea cucumbers are also rich in compounds called triterpene glycosides, which possess antifungal, antitumor and immune-boosting properties (16).
What's more, these marine animals are very high in chondroitin sulfate, an important component of human connective tissue found in cartilage and bone (17).
Foods and supplements that contain chondroitin sulfate may benefit those with joint diseases like osteoarthritis (18).
Summary Sea cucumbers deliver an impressive amount of nutrients and beneficial compounds, including protein, antioxidants and B vitamins.
Potential Health Benefits
Sea cucumbers have been linked to a number of potential health benefits.
Sea cucumbers contain substances called cytotoxins, which have been shown to fight cancer cells.
For example, one test-tube study showed that triterpene diglycosides found in Vietnamese sea cucumbers had a toxic effect on five types of cancer cells, including breast cancer, prostate and skin cancer cells (19).
Another study found that Ds-echinoside, a type of triterpene derived from sea cucumbers, reduced the spread and growth of human liver cancer cells (20).
While these results are promising, more research is needed to determine the efficacy and safety of using sea cucumber to fight cancer cells.
A number of test-tube studies have demonstrated that sea cucumber extract inhibits the growth of bacteria, including E. coli, S. aureus and S. typhi, all of which can cause illnesses (21).
In a one-week study in 17 elderly nursing home patients with oral Candida overgrowth, those who consumed a jelly containing sea cucumber extract showed a reduction in Candida overgrowth, compared to those who did not consume the jelly (23).
Additionally, one study in rats showed that sea cucumber fought sepsis, a life-threatening complication associated with harmful bacteria (24).
Heart and Liver Health
Several animal studies have demonstrated that sea cucumber may improve heart and liver health.
For example, rats with high blood pressure that were fed sea cucumber extract showed significant reductions in blood pressure, compared to rats who were not fed the extract (25).
Another study in young rats demonstrated that a sea cucumber-rich diet significantly reduced total cholesterol, low-density lipoproteins and triglycerides (26).
Furthermore, a study in rats with hepatorenal disease found that a single dose of sea cucumber extract significantly reduced oxidative stress and liver damage, as well as improved liver and kidney function (27).
Summary Sea cucumbers may fight cancer cells, inhibit harmful bacteria and improve heart health. However, more human studies are needed before conclusions about their potential health benefits can be made.
Potential Side Effects
While sea cucumbers have been consumed around the world for centuries and are considered relatively safe, there are some potential concerns.
First, they have anticoagulant properties, meaning they can thin the blood (28).
Those taking blood-thinning medications like Warfarin should stay away from sea cucumbers, especially in concentrated supplement form, to reduce the risk of increased bleeding.
Second, sea cucumbers are in the same family as sea urchins and starfish and should be avoided by people who are allergic to shellfish.
Also, while some animal studies support their use for treating cancer, heart disease and bacterial infections, research in these areas is limited.
Human studies are needed to learn more about the safety and efficacy of sea cucumbers.
Additionally, an increasing worldwide demand for sea cucumbers has led to a decrease in their population.
This species plays an important role in the ecosystem of ocean reefs and has been greatly impacted by unsustainable fishing methods (29).
To ensure sea cucumber populations remain at a healthy level, choose those raised through sustainable fish farming or that are fished using sustainable methods.
Consuming animal species that are not threatened is always the best practice.
Summary Sea cucumbers should be avoided by people with shellfish and seafood allergies and those taking blood-thinning medications. Choosing sustainably raised sea cucumbers can help reduce overfishing of this important animal.
The Bottom Line
Sea cucumbers are interesting marine animals that have a variety of culinary and medicinal uses.
They are a nutritious protein source that can be added to a number of delicious dishes.
Sea cucumbers may also have a number of health benefits, but more research is needed before conclusions can be made.
If you are feeling adventurous, try adding sea cucumber to your dishes in place of more traditional seafood.