One of the most popular green “superfoods” is spirulina. The natural algae has been a big seller in health stores for many years and there are literally hundreds of different versions of it on shelves. As with any popular supplement, there are plenty of myths about spirulina, about what it can and can’t do, what is added to it, and whether it is safe for daily consumption. Here are some of the basic facts about the world’s best-known algae that all consumers should know.
Sold primarily as a powdered form of cyanophyta (commonly called “blue-green algae”), spirulina contains protein, B-vitamins and antioxidants. It is made from a natural growth on ponds and other bodies of water. These “plant-like” organisms thrive in salt water but also live in fresh water environments.
For many years, vegetarians have touted the benefits of spirulina because it contains ample amounts of vitamin B12 as well as a form of natural iron. It is common for vegetarian diets to lack these two components.
Spirulina is not a good tasting powder (in fact, it tastes awful), but nearly all brands offer it as a capsule, pill or a drink mix that avoids this problem.
Uses for blue-green algae powder are numerous. Besides the previously mentioned applications for vegetarians, people take spirulina for ADHD, fatigue, stress, anxiety, depression, PMS, diabetes, hay fever and more. In fact, even though no scientific studies have been able to prove that spirulina is a definitive treatment for any of the above conditions, it is in widespread use for dozens of physical and mental maladies. Other reasons people take it include memory enhancement, to increase energy, to cut cholesterol, to prevent certain types of heart disease, to speed up wound healing, to aid digestion, and to improve general bowel health.
Like fine wines, there are literally thousands of variations of algae that make up spirulina powder supplements. The algae itself grows differently depending upon altitude, the type of water surrounding it, the salinity and purity of the water, the amount of sunlight it receives during growth, and the average temperature and air pressure in its environment.
Consumers should be aware that while spirulina does contain protein, the amounts per gram are not much different than in typical meat and dairy products. For vegetarians, however, it can be a smart way to include protein in a diet that lacks meat and milk.
Products are either grown naturally or in a controlled setting. Many spirulina enthusiasts look for “clean” powder, namely that which contains no heavy metals, microcystins (a chemical that harms the human liver), or bacteria. Metal contamination can be a problem with some of the lower-quality, discount spirulina products. Buyers need to ask questions, read labels, and educate themselves about what the better brands are. There are industry-standard testing procedures to make sure that a given spirulina product is free of all contaminants. As is the case with so many natural supplements on the market today, comparison shopping pays huge dividends.
Some studies on spirulina have found that it contains natural substances that cause the human body to produce a particular type of protein called cytokines, which is one of the ways that the immune system fights against colds. In addition, some research suggests that blue-green algae supplements have the potential to ease allergies and may even be able to boost the body’s ability to kill certain cancer cells.
Most of the nutrients in spirulina are highly absorbable, which means that the body is able to use them efficiently and quickly. It also contains very high levels of chlorophyll, which is a key component in aiding the immune system.
Organic spirulina tends to be much cleaner than other forms of the supplement. Non-organic variants tend to contain more contaminants and are often enhanced with nitrite compounds as fillers.
Of course it is always wise to check with a health care professional before beginning a supplement, exercise or weight loss regimen. Pregnant women, anyone with autoimmune disease, those who have PKU or any other medical condition should be sure to speak with their doctor before using spirulina.
The bottom line
Spirulina can be a very nutritious, healthful supplement for many people. It contains a long list of vitamins and minerals, but because of the way it is grown, caution must be exercised when it comes to purchasing products labeled as “blue-green algae,” “spirulina,” or “algae supplements.”
Consumers will do well to search for brands that are certified as containing NO heavy metals or other impurities. In addition, organic spirulina has a distinct advantage over the non-organic versions of the supplement, both for reasons of cleanliness and nutritional contents.
Beware of brands that are priced high but do not offer any of the benefits of pure spirulina. The most common dosage (there is not medically-recommended dose) is between 1 and 8 grams per day. As a form of iron, spirulina is quite inexpensive, but as a form of protein it is not.
Also note that science considers blue-green algae to be a whole food rather than a supplement, which is how some health stores categorize it, hence the term “green food.” As a final warning, because the spirulina market is so big and competitive, consumers thinking about using it should do their homework and spend time comparing brands and reading labels carefully.