You might’ve said this before a brief google search found you here. Or, in the event you are a superfood seeker such as ourselves, chances are you are now excited to have a jar of spirulina on your kitchen shelf. In technical terms, spirulina is a microscopic and filamentous cyanobacterium that derives its name from the spiral or helical nature of its filaments. It has a long history of use as food and it has been reported that it has been used during the Aztec civilization. There are two species, Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima. Arthrospira is cultivated worldwide and consumed by humans as a supplement AND as a whole food. It is available in tablet, flake and powder form.
Spirulina is one of the most ancient and important of all plants on earth. This microscopic plant played a major rolein forming our oxygen atmosphere some 3.5 billion years ago. Though often referred to as a type of algae of the genus Spirulina, technically, it is a type of blue-green bacteria (cya-nobacteria) and its true genus name is Arthrospira. Spirulina has been an important food source in various cultures. The Aztecs and other Mesoamericans used it un-til the 16th century, and their ancestors still use it today. In Chad, it has been harvested from Lake Chad and eaten incakes since the 9th century.
If Spirulina Could Humble Brag…
There are three major forms of spirulina: powder, capsules and tablets, the latter two of which are generally the most convenient to use. Since spirulina is food rather than a medicine or multivitamin product, it is safe to enjoy it even in large quantities. Spirulina powder is great for mixing with salads, smoothies, juices or other beverages, even with water. Heating spirulina can alter some of its delicate biological components and reduce or destroy their effectiveness.
NASA helped bring this mighty green superfood to fame when it successfully used spirulina as a dietary supplement for astronauts on space missions. According to that research, it has the ability to modulate immune functions and exhibits anti-inflammatory properties by inhibiting the release of histamine by mast cells. Multiple studies investigating the efficacy and the potential clinical applications of Spirulina in treating several diseases have been performed and a few randomized controlled trials and systematic reviews suggest that this alga may improve several symptoms and may even have an anticancer, antiviral and anti-allergic effects.
The blue green micro-algae variety has been around forever and was even declared the “best food for the future” by the United Nations World Food Conference in 1974. According to their research, spirulina is looking pretty good right about now:
- Spirulina is effective: one gram per day is sufficient enough to correct severe
malnutrition in a child in a few weeks. New studies suggest that Spirulina not
only improves the physical development of the child but also cognitive
- Moreover, Spirulina helps people affected by HIV/AIDS to gain weight and
feel better in their daily life.
- It is a relatively simple process and requires a low investment of only US$ 500
per tank (18 m2) to produce 150 grams per day.
- It empowers women: spirulina cultivation is labour-intensive, hence an ideal
job for rural women and others.
- It is a local business: spirulina production can be organized as a decentralized
rural industry and can involve local people. Individuals can generate an income
through producing, processing and selling spirulina as a business. It is thus a
sustainable long-term solution.
The Health Benefits of Spirulina
A cyanobacteria once coveted by the Aztec, spirulina is now considered once of the most nutritious food sources known to man. Once called “the best food for the future” by the United Nations World Food Conference, this blue-green algae is a complete protein rich in B vitamins and has been reported to help correct anemia, reduce radioactive damage and lower cholesterol.
To view the full nutritional value profile of spirulina you can visit the USDA Food Composition Database here. To break it down, spirulina is a complete protein containing all essential amino acids. A 100 gram amount of spirulina supplies 290 Calories and is a source (20% or more of the Daily Value, DV) of numerous nutrients, particularly B vitamins (thiamin and riboflavin, 207% and 306% DV, respectively) and dietary minerals, such as iron (219% DV) and manganese (90% DV). Spirulina’s lipid content is 8% by weight (table) providing gamma-linolenic acid, alpha-linolenic acid, linoleic acid, stearidonic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid, docosahexaenoic acid, and arachidonic acid. These statistics can all be seen in the table mentioned above.
Choosing Quality Spirulina
The U.S. National Institutes of Health describes spirulina supplements as “possibly safe”, provided they are free of contamination. Some forms of contamination can occur by microcystin, and heavy-metal contamination. The Chinese State Food and Drug Administration reported that lead, mercury, and arsenic contamination was widespread in spirulina supplements marketed in China, with one study reporting the presence of lead up to 5.1 ppm in a sample from a commercial supplement.
Quality of the air,water and nutrient and culturing methods – it is likened to growing spirulina in a heavily polluted environment in a raceway or pond with the cheapest range of nutrients/minerals, than growing a culture in a pristine place with the highest quality nutrients/minerals in a sealed system.
Other things to consider when choosing quality spirulia: Does the taste or smell seems “off”? Dry spirulina comes with a natural “Sea” smell and fresh spirulina doesn’t taste or smell anything. If the spirulina comes with a strong smell, a sweet, sour or unusual taste, don’t eat it! Spirulina, once removed from the preserving alkaline environment of the tank, is like raw eggs in its perishability—it should be eaten or refrigerated within an hour or so of harvest. It will last in the fridge for up to three days. If frozen, it lasts indefinitely; if dehydrated (and kept dry), it will last for about a year, longer if kept in an airtight container. It’s not hard to tell if it does go bad—it smells like rotten egg
Pure and fresh spirulina is a deep green, with no white or black specks in it. If the color is dull or non-uniform, these are lower quality spirulina. Dry powder spirulina should be like flour.
And lastly, the cost of quality spirulina. You get what you pay for! If you think the price is too good to be true, it might just be. Look elsewhere or do some more research!
Growing Spirulina At Home
Here’s a more controversial approach – growing your own spirulina at home. To grow your own spirulina you will need:
- A tank or bassin, the size will depend of the quantity of spirulina you wish to harvest. A average size fish tank will be enough for a family of 4. For larger installation, in average, you can harvest 10-12 gr of dry spirulina per square meter of bassin
- The culture medium, made of water + the “food” for spirulina (=Sodium bicarbonate (if direct CO2 is not available) • Magnesium sulfate • Potassium nitrade • Citric acid • Common salt • Urea • Calcium chloride • Iron sulfate • Ammonium sulfate)
- Harvesting equipment
- Spirulina seeds to start your culture
- Drying racks if you produce more fresh spirulina than you can eat and need to dry it to preserve it.
We are TBD on this one but HERE is a great resource to learn more about the ins and outs of harvesting your own cyanobacteria put together by The Spirulina Academy.
Have you tried to grow your own spirulina before? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below!
Spirulina in Scientific Studies
Spirulina and Chronic Fatigue via source
Spirulina has been promoted as “the food of the future” with “exceptional constituents” that contribute to high energy levels. A few of these constituents such as polysaccharides (Rhamnose and Glycogen) and essential fat (GLA) are absorbed easily by human cells and help in energy release. Spirulina increases healthy lactobacillus in the intestine, enabling the production of Vitamin B6 that also helps in energy release. Despite this promotion, the only available placebo-controlled randomized trial showed that the scores of fatigue were not significantly different between spirulina and placebo. Spirulina administered at a dose of 3 g day−1 did not ameliorate fatigue more than the placebo in any of the four subjects and possibly it has no effect on chronic fatigue.
Cholesterol-Lowering Effects and Effects on Diabetes via source
Nakaya et al., in the first human study, gave 4.2 g day−1 of Spirulina to 15 male volunteers and, although there was no significant increase in high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, they observed a significant reduction of high-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol after 8 weeks of treatment. The atherogenic effect also declined significantly in the above group. Ramamoorthy and Premakumari in a more recent study administered Spirulina supplements in ischemic heart disease patients and found a significant reduction in blood cholesterol, triglycerides and LDL cholesterol and an increase in HDL cholesterol. More research is needed before Spirulina can be recommended to lower cholesterol levels but its role as a natural food supplement in combating hyperlipidaemia, in combination with other therapeutic options, should not be overlooked. Finally, Mani et al. in a clinical study, found a significant reduction in LDL : HDL ratio in 15 diabetic patients who were given Spirulina. However, this study was small and better studies are needed before Spirulina can be recommended in diabetes.
How To Use Spirulina
There are three major forms of spirulina: powder, capsules and tablets, the latter two of which are generally the most convenient to use. Since spirulina is food rather than a medicine or multivitamin product, it is safe to enjoy it even in large quantities. Spirulina powder is great for mixing with salads, smoothies, juices or other beverages, even with water. Heating spirulina can alter some of its delicate biological com-ponents and reduce or destroy their effectiveness.