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The Wellness Column By Anchan Vegetarian


Every now and then, new health food hypes emerge, swearing by the tremendous health benefits this or that product delivers. Probably ninety percent of these fade away as quickly as they came up, dying an inglorious death, to live on in health related urban mythology at best. But sometimes there is one that sticks around and actually proves to be a true source of wellness and nutritional extravagance.
Spirulina is one of those, a cyanobacterium that can be consumed by humans and other animals as a nutritional supplement or whole food. Arthrospira spp., which is the scientific name for spirulina, is cultivated worldwide and is available in tablet, flake and powder form. It is also used as a feed supplement in the aquaculture, aquarium and poultry industries. Recognizing the potential of spirulina in the sustainable development agenda, several member states of the United Nations came together to form an intergovernmental organization named the Intergovernmental Institution for the use of Micro-algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition (IIMSAM). Also, in the late 1980s and early ’90s both NASA (CELSS) and the European Space Agency (MELISSA) proposed Spirulina as one of the primary foods to be cultivated during long-term space missions.
Spirulina occurs naturally in tropical and subtropical lakes with high pH and high concentrations of carbonate and bicarbonate. It can be found in Africa, Asia, Central America and South America.
What very few people know is that spirulina was a food source for the Aztecs and other Mesoamericans until the 16th century; the harvest from Lake Texcoco and subsequent sale as cakes were described by one of CortÚs’ soldiers. The first large-scale spirulina production plant, run by Sosa Texcoco, was established there in the early 1970s.
Spirulina has also been traditionally harvested in Lake Chad from small lakes and ponds. It is dried into cakes which are used to make broths for meals, and also sold in markets.
Dried Spirulina contains about 60% protein. It is a complete protein containing all essential amino acids, though with reduced amounts of methionine, cysteine and lysine when compared to the proteins of meat, eggs and milk. It is, however, superior to typical plant protein, such as that from legumes.
Spirulina is not considered to be a reliable source of Vitamin B12. Spirulina supplements contain predominantly pseudo vitamin B12, which is biologically inactive in humans.
Spirulina’s lipid content is about 7% by weight and it contains a tremendous array of healthy fatty acids such as, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), linoleic acid (LA) and stearidonic acid (SDA) to name just a few. It also contains several vitamins out of the B complex, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin E and vitamin K. It is also a source of potassium, calcium, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, sodium and zinc. Furthermore spirulina contains many pigments which may be beneficial and bio-available, including but not limited to beta-carotene and zeaxanthin.
Toxicological studies of the effects of spirulina consumption on humans and animals have shown no toxic effects. Spirulina intake has also been found to prevent damage caused by toxins affecting the heart, liver, kidneys, neurons, eyes, ovaries, DNA, and testicles. The Food and Drug Administration has awarded the GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) designation to Spirulina to several producers worldwide.
Heavy-metal contamination of spirulina supplements has also raised concern. The Chinese State Food and Drug Administration reported that lead, mercury, and arsenic contamination was widespread in spirulina supplements marketed in China.
Thailand is one of the main producers of spirulina on a world scale, mainly producing for export, with very little domestic consumption. One of the biggest farms is Boonsom Farm, situated south of Chiang Mai city. Here you can learn how spirulina algae is grown, harvested and made into finished products. Plus, you can experience delicious food made with spirulina and enjoy a spirulina facial spa treatment.

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