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This Jamaican Import Claims Surprising Health Benefits

Irish moss is a beloved Jamaican drink that has gained popularity in the United States.

Covered with beautiful beaches and blessed with a rich cultural heritage, Jamaica captures visitors with music, dance, and food. I've traveled to the "land of wood and water" many times, and it's one of my favorite Caribbean islands. Lounging on the pearly beaches in Portland, Montego Bay, or Ocho Rios with upbeat reggae tunes blasting in the background is a must, but the experience is not complete without savoring delectable Jamaican food.

From the flavorful national dish of ackee and saltfish to the street staples of patties and jerk chicken, you haven't really experienced Jamaica until you've sampled the local cuisine—it's fair to say that Jamaica's cultural impact is as much a result of its food as its music or natural beauty. Over the years, jerk seasonings, jerk chicken, patties, and curried chicken have been imported as restaurant mainstays all over the world. However, there is one Jamaican food import that I'll admit I have been surprised to see take off in the United States: Irish moss, a salty, gelatinous drink that's sipped fresh or from cans all over the island.

I first tried Irish moss in a beach hut in Negril, where the beverage was mixed with rum; I was not a fan of the briny taste it left in my mouth. Later, I sipped it in a Kingston cafe in its popular form of peanut punch, with peanut butter, cinnamon, and condensed milk added for a creamy, sweet flavor. I enjoyed it, up until a leering peanut punch street vendor explained that it was primarily "a man's drink for stamina." I decided to skip Irish moss in all its forms after that. However, I recently discovered that more U.S. grocery stores, health shops, and herbal supplement websites are spurring a newfound popularity for the beverage, touting its alleged health benefits.

On many Caribbean islands, but especially Jamaica, Irish moss is beloved for its reported ability to stimulate and even increase the male libido. It's actually a seaweed that was transported to Jamaica by Irish immigrants during the 1800s. High in protein and minerals, this red algae now grows along rocks on Jamaica's coast. It's usually harvested by hand, in areas where the river meets the sea. Washing, soaking, boiling, and blending Irish moss into a drink is a laborious process, which is why commercial products like this Big Bamboo Irish Moss Drink are so popular.

Irish moss has been used for centuries in traditional medicine to treat various ailments and improve overall health. The seaweed is rich in vitamins and minerals such as iodine, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, as well as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Some studies suggest that Irish moss may help boost the immune system and support digestion. Despite Jamaican folklore, no studies have backed up the claim that Irish Moss improves the libido.

I have stuck by my avoidance of Irish moss drink and peanut punch, but with all the new products based on it, I now enjoy daily spoonfuls of mango-flavored sea moss gel to boost my immunity without the gluey texture and brackish taste of the beverage. Every time I spoon a dollop of the fruity, smooth gel, I think about the inventive forms and unexpected creative paths of Jamaican food.