Spirulina may be a trendy ingredient in the health and wellness community, but it is by no means new. It’s been harvested as a food source by humans for centuries. The Aztecs harvested it in Lake Texcoco, Mexico and it is still harvested from Lake Chad in Africa today. Most of the high-end commercial varieties of this expensive algae are grown in Hawaii, with companies like Nutrex Hawaii representing the lion’s share of the US market. Taiwan is a big player in the Spirulina market as well.
Proponents claim spirulina to be one of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet, ounce per ounce. From heavy metal detoxification to being a micronutrient panacea, there’s no shortage of health claims about this particular cyanobacteria.
Spirulina vs. Chlorella
Spirulina is a spiral-shaped microalgae rich in nutrients and protein, iron, calcium and B vitamins. It has a purportedly mild taste (that’s debatable), and it is rich in chlorophyll. Spirulina is not technically a plant, but rather bacterium. It has a lot in common with plants though, particularly it’s richness in plant pigments and ability to photosynthesize. Unlike it’s cousin, chlorella (which actually is a plant), spirulina is readily bioavailable to the human body. Chlorella’s cell wall needs to be “cracked” in order for humans to obtain nutrition from it. For this reason, spirulina is typically cheaper and more common. Only purchase “cracked cell-wall chlorella.”
Buyer Beware: As spirulina gains mainstream popularity, cheaper, underregulated and potentially hazardous off-brands from China and Mongolia are permeating the market (looking at you, Amazon). Look for Spirulina manufactured in Hawaii, Taiwan, or Australia. If chlorella is what your’e after, then Yaeyama Chlorella from Japan has a solid reputation.
15 Facts about Spirulina
#1) B Vitamins: Spirulina is NOT your vitamin B12 solution, Vegans. The type of B12 found in spirulina is a psuedovitamin, which is not absorbable by humans. Vegans and vegetarians should NOT replace their B12 supplementation with spirulina.
Spirulina is, however, a good source of Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6 and B9.
#2) Iron: Spirulina is high in iron, making it a very helpful food for vegans and anemics. Because spirulina is a non-heme source of iron (meaning it is not derived from animal sources), it is less bioavailable than the iron you get from meat. If you’re a plant-based eater, then don’t stop at 100% DV when it comes to this micromineral.
#3) Protein: Spirulina is very high in protein, ounce per ounce, but if you’re taking a few servings a day, it’s not enough. It is a complete protein, and has net protein utilization rate of 50%-61%. You can satisfy about 4% of your daily value of protein from just a teaspoon of Hawaiian spirulina. Spirulina makes a great addition to other plant-based proteins, such as pea, rice and hemp. It should not be your primary source of protein, however. If you consider spirulina to be a calorically significant staple to your diet, you’re either eating way too much spirulina or not getting enough. Diversify your plant-based macronutrients!
#4) Vitamin K: A lack of Vitamin K2 is a criticism of a plant-based diet. K2 is found primarily in animal foods or natto, a fermented soybean product. Nutrex- Hawaii’s Spirulina claims to contain vitamin K2, but this may be as dubious as their vitamin B12 claim. Bioavailability is a key factor to consider.Vegans and vegetarians should not replace their vitamin K2 supplementation with spirulina.
#5) Vitamin A: Spirulina is extremely high in Vitamin A, with 10x the beta carotene concentration as carrots. Spirulina shows excellent promise in supporting eye health.
#6) Heavy Metal Detox
Spirulina binds to heavy metals in the body, and it is particularly helpful in detoxifying arsenic from the body. Trace amounts of arsenic hide in our foods (such as rice) and tap water. Combining 500 mg of spirulina with zinc may reduce arsenic toxicity by half.
#7) Radiation Detox
New evidence suggests that spirulina also binds with radioactive isotopes, so it may be useful after exposure to radioactivity or radiation therapy. So, you should probably keep and unopened bottle of spirulina handy in your family’s post-apocalyptic nuclear doomsday kit. You DO have one of those, don’t you…?
#9) High in Chlorophyll
Spirulina’s high chlorophyll content gives it a nutritional profile similar to leafy greens! Try sneaking some spirulina into your juice or on top of a salad. Looking for an even bigger chlorophyll boost? Chlorella crushes spirulina in that category.
#10) Balances Blood Sugar:
One study (performed on rats) showed that spirulina balanced blood sugar after excessive fructose administration. Spirulina may hold promise for diabetics and pre-diabetics. (Note: Spirulina should in no way be considered a replacement for diabetes medication.)
#11) Omega-3s and Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA):
Without fish and red meat, an Omega-3 deficiency is a potential pitfall of a vegan diet. Thus, any plant food with a higher Omega-3:Omega-6 ratio is beneficial. Most people, not just vegans, consume far too many Omega-6s fatty acids and not nearly enough Omega-3s. Algae based Omega-3 supplements and flax seeds are some vegan Omega-3 cheats.
#12) Reduces Allergic Rhinitis:
A study on natural remedies for allergic rhinitis showed that spirulina showed promise in reducing allergy symptoms. This may be due to its anti-inflammatory nature.
#13) Full of Antioxidants:
A Taiwanese study showed that spirulina has an ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) score of 24,000. Thats 4x higher than blueberries. The ORAC score is used to measure antioxidant concentration in foods. The antioxidant that makes spirulina unique is C-Phycocyanin.
#14) It’s Sustainable
Spirulina production shows great promise in preventing malnutrition in impoverished areas. It’s sustainable, easy to produce, and its production is mostly free from animal cruelty.
#15) People with PKU should NOT take Spirulina
Spirulina contains the amino acid phenylalanine, therefore it is not safe for people suffering with the condition PKU.
Bottom-Line: Spirulina is a mostly safe, healthful addition to any plant-based/vegan diet. It is rich in vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals like magnesium and manganese. However, spirulina should not be relied upon for vitamins K2 and B12. Although it is high in iron, protein, and omega-3’s, it should not serve as your primary source for these nutrients. You would have to consume nearly 10 servings of powdered spirulina just to get up to an ounce, which would be a hefty chunk of your daily value of protein, but at that point you’d probably be getting too much iron. Moderation is key.
Spirulina in powdered form is more easily digested, and some spirulina capsules/tablets contain fillers and binders. Source your spirulina wisely! Always shop with due diligence and a healthy dose of skepticism.