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
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
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