The sea lettuces comprise the genus Ulva, a group of edible green algae that is widely distributed along the coasts of the world's oceans. The type species within the genus Ulva is Ulva lactuca, lactuca being Latin for "lettuce". The genus also includes the species previously classified under the genus Enteromorpha, the former members of which are known under the common name green nori.
Sea lettuce is eaten by a number of different sea animals, including manatees and the sea slugs known as sea hares. Many species of sea lettuce are a food source for humans in Scandinavia, Great Britain, Ireland, China, and Japan (where this food is known as aosa). Sea lettuce as a food for humans is eaten raw in salads and cooked in soups. It is high in protein, soluble dietary fiber, and a variety of vitamins and minerals, especially iron.
Individual blades of Ulva can grow to be more than 400mm (16") in size, but this only occurs when the plants are growing in sheltered areas.
In August 2009, unprecedented amounts of these algae washed up on the beaches of Brittany, France, causing a major public health scare as it decomposed. The rotting leaves produced large quantities of hydrogen sulphide, a toxic gas. In one incident near Saint-Michel-en-Grève, a horse rider lost consciousness and his horse died after breathing the seaweed fumes; in another, a lorry driver driving a load of decomposing sea lettuce passed out, crashed and died, with toxic fumes claimed to be the cause. Environmentalists blamed the phenomenon on excessive use of nitrates by pig and poultry farmers.