If you go into any juice bar worth its wheatgrass, you're bound to find spirulina on the list of available "power-ups" you can choose to boost the nutritional value of your smoothie.
It sounds so weird that it must be good for you. But what exactly is this superfood, and where does it come from?
It's a microscopic nutrient powerhouse, that also happens to pack a more powerful protein punch than red meat.
Although it's commonly called "blue-green algae," it's actually not an alga. It's a cyanobacterium, an ancient bacterium that photosynthesizes and probably played a large role in steering biodiversity as we know it today.
It grows naturally in warm, freshwater lake regions, but is also "farmed" commercially in open ponds, covered greenhouses, and transparent tubes called photobioreactors. There are more than 40,000 varieties, and quality of the supplement varies. It measures about .1 mm across, and clings in spiraled coils of various density, depending on the strain.
People have been eating it for centuries, although it's just regained popularity over the last 40 years. In the 1970s, annual world-wide harvests yielded about 100 tons. As its use becomes more widespread, the industry expects that that figure to rise to 220 tons.
Dr. Janet Konefal, assistant dean for Complementary and Integrative Medicine at the University of Miami, gives the food a qualified recommendation: "The only serious risk is that there are cases reported where people actually have a sensitivity reaction," Konefal says. "They get a serious skin rash, and they need to stop taking it. They need to get medical care. But that's very rare. I've only seen it in two [cases] in the literature. So it could be that those people had something else going on that caused that kind of reaction."
Konefal assures those who might be nervous about the concept of purposely ingesting bacteria that there's a difference between "good" bacteria and bad.
"We're highly recommending probiotics these days, because people's digestive systems seem to be breaking down, and with all the processed foods, we're not getting good flora," she said. "For the most part spirulina is very safe. [Consumers] should be sure to get one that's already been semi-processed, and it will say that on [the package]. They should look to see if it has a stamp on it that says it's pharmaceutical grade. That would even be better."
As a nutritional supplement that is also a whole food, Konefal says that spirulina has definite advantages over synthetically derived vitamin tablets and other, more processed supplements.
"It's got antioxidants in it, and it will also have phytonutrients. And we really don't know enough about all the processes that phytonutrients are involved in, so it's always better to get your vitamins from food than synthetic vitamins, because they're not complete, they don't have the full complex," she said. "Also, it could have organic minerals in it. We need minerals in the form our body can use. If we just take copper and eat it, it wouldn't work. You know, copper, iron, selenium --- we need all of those in the organic form."
She recommends mixing the food in its powder form it into shakes or smoothies rather than taking spirulina tablets.
So what are the stats on this slimy little unicellular organism?
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Per 100 grams of spirulina, you get:
- Up to 60 grams of "complete" protein (meaning all eight essential amino acids are present), depending on when the harvest is made (morning harvests have highest protein content). For comparison, 100 grams of steak contains 27 grams of protein. Organisms (like you) that eat spirulina can quickly absorb the protein, due to the lack of rigid cell walls around the bacteria. Konefal agreed with this assessment of the protein's absorbability. For more explanation on this, look at page 3 of this research paper.)
- Vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, and B12 and E; biotin (good for carbohydrate metabolism); folic acid; pantothenic acid (the "anti-stress" vitamin); inositol (good for liver health); and niacin.
- Minerals potassium, calcium, zinc, manganese, magnesium, selenium, iron, and phosphorus.
- Spirulina also contains 10 of the 12 non-essential amino acids.