Spirulina: Food Of The Future
By Jack Joseph Challem and Renate Lewin
Reprinted with permission, LET'S LIVE Magazine
What is at the bottom of the food chain, yet is one of the most productive "food factories" in the world?
Not grains, not vegetables, not meat, not eggs, and not milk.
Simple, one-celled plants, called algae, are the oldest known makers of food on the planet, and they were here long before creatures left the sea to live on land. To this day, algae and other single-celled organisms, called plankton, form the basis of the food chain, especially in the oceans. Even enormous mammals such as whales live primarily on these simple cells.
Unlike other plants and animals, one-celled organisms don't have complicated bodies and biochemistries to maintain. They are built for one thing: food production. Using light, warmth, water, and minerals, algae devote almost all their energy toward producing protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, amino acids, and other nutrients vital to life.
Consequently, algae are one of the most concentrated food sources on earth. One type of blue-green algae, Spirulina, is making a name for itself as a nutritional supplement, diet food, and sustenance for those who need an inexpensive, quickly grown, and handy food, including everyone from astronauts to Third World villagers.
Spirulina, unlike many other types of algae, can live in brackish, still waters that are not suitable for other uses, such as drinking, fishing, or Irrigation. Spirulina can also live in very warm waters, such as desert lakes and ponds that are too hot to sustain other algae. And, if those ponds should dry up in the desert sun, spirulina transforms into sweet, wafer-like leaves that still provide protein and energy.
Although it is related to sea algae, spirulina is not "ocean-going." It grows in inland waters, and thus can be controlled and farmed just like any other crop. Given sunlight and minerals in the water, spirulina does nothing but produce food and more spirulina plants. Spirulina is so efficient a food producer that it photosynthesizes at a rate of 10 percent sun/food conversion. (In comparison, soybeans can only manage a three percent efficiency rate.)
And spirulina doesn't produce just any kind of food. Ounce for ounce, it provides more complete protein than meat -- about 70 percent compared with 22 percent for beef. In addition, spirulina has little or no fat, except for vital unsaturated fatty acids, and it is one of the few reliable vegetarian sources of the essential vitamin, B-12.
Spirulina is an excellent source of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an essential fat associated with heart health. GLA is also found in mother's milk, some cheeses, primrose seed oil, and flax.
Spirulina supplies all eight of the essential amino acids -- those that the body cannot manufacture itself -- plus 10 of the 12 nonessential amino acids. Amino acids are used by the body to build tissue, to maintain nerve and brain cells, and to control mood and energy levels, as well as cellular growth. Because it is especially rich in phenylalanine, an amino acid that energizes the brain and suppresses appetite, spirulina has been used in weight control programs.
Because it grows in mineral-rich brackish water, spirulina is an excellent source of many important minerals, including potassium, calcium, zinc, magnesium, selenium, iron, and phosphorus. It provides these in a naturally "chelated" form bound with amino acids, which is easy to digest and assimilate. Yet spirulina is low in sodium and resists contamination by heavy metals (such as lead and cadmium) when properly cultivated.
Most of the important vitamins, including the B-complex, E, and beta carotene (used by the body to make vitamin A), are concentrated in spirulina. This algae also contains various digestive enzymes, chlorophyll (for bowel health), and pigments that help liver function. Unlike most single-celled algae, including chlorella, spirulina does not have a hard, cellulose wall around its cells, thereby making it easier and quicker to digest.
While spirulina is loaded with all these positive nutrients, it is very low in calories, fats, sugars, and sodium. For example, spirulina is only seven percent fat, and most of that is in the form of beneficial fatty acids that help normalize cholesterol levels in the body. Spirulina's sugar content is only 10 percent, primarily in the form of rhamnose, a complex sugar that does not require insulin for digestion.
Last but not least, the average 500 milligram tablet of spirulina contains only two calories! And most of that is from protein.
SPACE-AGE NUTRITION FROM THE ANCIENT WORLD
Texas A & M University in College Station, Texas, has begun a long-term study to see if spirulina would make a good food for astronauts living in space stations. Obviously, a compact, easily grown, nutrient dense food source is desirable in space, where the room and the facilities to produce food are limited.
The study hopes to determine if spirulina, not just as a supplement but as a major food source, is economical, feasible, and safe. One concern is that spirulina, so rich in protein and amino acids, could raise uric acid levels in the body. In some people, too much uric acid can lead to gout. The study will also explore the effect of high levels of pigments, such as chlorophyll, phycocyanin, and porphyrin, on human physiology. These pigments are present to some extent in all plant foods, but they are not as concentrated as in pure spirulina.
Although modern studies are refining the applications of spirulina, it is not really a new food, but one that is being rediscovered. Spirulina has been a staple in parts of Africa and Mexico for centuries. It is currently one of the most popular dietary supplements in Japan, where it is extensively studied for its beneficial effect on diabetes, ulcers, liver disease, allergies, and cardiac problems.
Archaeologists have even theorized that the ancient Mayan Indians of Guatemala and the Aztecs of Mexico may have used spirulina. In both civilizations, "traditional" sources of high-quality protein (such as meat and milk) were scarce, and farming was difficult, especially for the jungle-dwelling Mayans. Yet these civilizations thrived and were able to support complex social organizations that had nothing to do with food production. How?
When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Mexico almost 500 years ago they reported finding the natives enjoying a mysterious green scum that thrived on Lake Texcoco, located near Mexico City. The green scum, called tecuitlatl by the Aztecs, was probably a form of spirulina that is still found on Lake Texcoco. And in Mayan country, archaeologists have found carefully designed ponds and waterways that may have been used as algae-growing ponds. Because the area receives more than 90 inches of rain a year and is in general not suited to agriculture, it is unlikely that the waterways were irrigation projects for traditional field crops.
When Europeans arrived in parts of Africa, they noticed natives were collecting and eating green scum -spirulina -- that grew on stagnant, Inland waters. French and Belgian scientists and engineers developed some of the local spirulina growing and harvesting techniques on Lake Chad for European markets, and they continue to study the feasibility of wide-scale spirulina farming as both a food base for poor villages and as a resource for European health food markets. And during the past 20 years, entrepreneurs in California's inland valleys have experimented with algae ponds to supply high-quality spirulina for the natural foods and supplements market.
WHO SHOULD USE SPIRULINA?
Although some Japanese Buddhist monks are said to survive on spirulina and water alone, most of us would use spirulina as a supplement, not a replacement, for a balanced diet.
Dieters can use spirulina to fill in nutritional gaps left by a reduced calorie regimen, and feel safe knowing spirulina is low in fat, sugar, and calories, because it contains such complete nutrition, spirulina helps dieters feel more "satisfied" since their bloodstreams remain richly supplied with protein and vitamins.
Because spirulina contains phenylalanine, it also suppresses the appetite centers in the brain while making the dieter feel more energetic. Too much phenylalanine in over the-counter diet pills can cause headache and hypertension when abused, but the average supplemental dose of spirulina rarely causes such problems. (Check with your doctor if you have phenylketonuria or other medical conditions that could be aggravated by phenylalanine.)
People with reduced appetites, perhaps following surgery or as a result of other illness, may want to use spirulina as a concentrated protein and vitamin supplement so they can safely eat less without compromising nutrition.
Ulcer victims and those with touchy digestion or food intolerances can get nutrients quickly, in a concentrated form and with relative ease of digestion, by using spirulina as a supplement.
Are you pregnant or lactating? Check with your doctor: Spirulina could help you meet your nutritional requirements without over-consuming high-calorie foods.
Because it is high in folic acid, vitamin B-12, vitamin E, and iron, spirulina is a good supplement for menstruating women and people with anemia, although a good overall diet is also necessary to improve anemia.
HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?
Spirulina is currently sold as a supplement, not as a replacement for food. For people interested in optimal nutrition from varied sources, spirulina supplements can make sense.
Spirulina is available as tablets or powder. It is sometimes added to diet foods and supplements, although people who don't like a blue-green food that tastes a little grassy may prefer to stick to the tablets. Many people report actually liking the taste once they get used to it, and the blue-green color can certainly perk up an ordinary vegetable dip or muffin mix.
In time, perhaps spirulina-based food "boosters" will be common. And soon, spirulina could become space food while also feeding the hungry people on earth