Article at a glance:
- Spirulina is a nutrient-packed food source that’s been used for centuries, specifically dating back to the Aztec civilization.
- In recent years, it has been regarded as one of the best superfoods because of its high amounts of protein, amino acids, antioxidants, and fatty acids.
- As a dietary supplement, it’s widely available as a tablet or powder to easily reap the amazing health benefits of spirulina.
When looking for nutrient-dense foods, your search will most likely lead you to spirulina. You may have only recently discovered it, but it has a long history as a nutritious food source going back to the Aztec civilization.
Spirulina continues to gain popularity among health enthusiasts. Many rave about it being one of the most nutrient-packed foods ever discovered.
Claims that it can help manage certain diseases still need more research. But mounting evidence suggests that spirulina has many potential health benefits. And it’s due to its high nutrient density.
But first, it’s important to understand what is spirulina and what it isn’t before adding it to your diet.
What Is Spirulina Made From?
Spirulina comes from multicellular cyanobacteria and is a popular edible blue-green alga with three widely recognized species, namely spirulina platensis, spirulina fusiformis, and spirulina maxima.
Most research to determine its nutritional value and potential health benefits focused on spirulina platensis. And this is the most used species for supplements due to its health benefits.
The earliest documentation of spirulina as a food source dates back to the 16th century when the Spanish forces invaded the Aztecs. Fishermen in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, now called Mexico City, were reportedly harvesting a blue organism called “tecuitlatl” used to make a blue-green cake.
Historical records further suggested that the Aztecs may have used foods with spirulina to boost endurance, especially for messenger runners.
Today, spirulina can be naturally found in warm, alkaline lakes, but it’s also being cultivated in various parts of the world, like Taiwan, Japan, Hawaii, India, and China. In some regions, the nutrient-packed microalgae are considered a viable dietary supplement that may help tackle widespread malnutrition.
The way of consuming spirulina has drastically changed since the Aztec civilizations. Now, spirulina supplements are typically taken as tablets or powders.
Why Is Spirulina Called a Superfood?
If you ask health enthusiasts what is spirulina, they’ll likely tell you that it’s a superfood. And that would be an accurate answer considering it’s packed with vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.
The nutritional composition of spirulina, particularly its protein content, makes it stand out among other popular superfoods.
Why Spirulina Is Considered ‘Complete Food’
We can look into its nutritional composition to further appreciate spirulina’s place in the superfoods’ hall of fame. Many consider it a “complete food” because it has high amounts of the macronutrients we need.
An analysis of spirulina’s nutritional components found that complete protein makes up 60% to 70% of its dry weight. Healthy amounts of carbohydrates and fats were also found in its cell wall.
So consuming spirulina may help those maintaining a plant-based diet get most of the nutrition they need.
1. Great Source of Amino Acids
There’s also a “moderately high” content of essential amino acids, including leucine, tryptophane, methionine, phenylalanine, lysine, thionine, isoleucine, and valine.
Amino acids are famously known as the building blocks of protein. But they also help with other important body functions. They enhance the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, help in tissue repair, and aid in regulating digestive functions.
2. Rich in Fatty Acids
The same analysis also found various fatty acids in spirulina, the highest amounts being palmitic, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), linoleic acid, and omega-3.
Palmitic acid has anti-inflammatory properties and may enhance the body’s metabolism.
GLA is a noteworthy fatty acid because available clinical evidence suggests it has the potential to help manage various health conditions. One trial found GLA may help alleviate symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
An earlier animal clinical study also found that GLA has antihypertensive activity when administered as a dietary supplement. It means this fatty acid may help reduce high blood pressure.
3. Wide Variety of Vitamins
There’s an even longer list of vitamins and minerals found in spirulina. It contains several B vitamins, including niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, biotin, folate (folic acid), and pantothenic acid.
Spirulina isn’t the only food source with B vitamins. But having several components of the B-vitamin complex together in spirulina further solidifies its position as a superfood. Together, these vitamins have shown the potential to improve gut health.
But every B vitamin has unique properties with particular health benefits. For example, a folate deficiency can lead to anemia because it helps the body produce healthy red blood cells.
Spirulina was also found to be a great source of beta-carotene. Also known as provitamin A, it gives fruits and vegetables orange and yellow pigment. Once we consume foods rich in beta-carotene, the body converts it into vitamin A, which may boost the immune system.
4. Minerals That Provide Health Benefits
Several healthy minerals are also present in spirulina, most notably potassium, calcium, and phosphorus. It also contains iron, which the body needs to produce hemoglobin. It’s a protein that helps red blood cells transport oxygen in the body.
Spirulina Nutritional Facts
In every tablespoon (7 grams) of dried spirulina, you’re getting:
- 20.3 calories
- 4.0g protein
- 0.5g fat
- 1.7g carbohydrates
- 0.3g dietary fiber
- 95.4mg potassium
- 2.0mg iron
- 8.4mg calcium
- 73.4mg sodium
- 13.7mg magnesium
- 8.3mg phosphorus
What Is Spirulina Good For?
Scientists have conducted massive research and clinical trials on spirulina and how it affects various health conditions. While more research is still needed to conclude spirulina’s therapeutic properties, clinical trials have supported its potential health benefits over the years.
1. May Reduce Cholesterol Levels
Studies conducted over the years focused on spirulina’s potential health benefits, specifically on risk factors for cardiovascular diseases like cholesterol levels.
One study found spirulina supplementation (2 to 8 grams) daily may improve the levels of blood lipids. The trial observed that spirulina may help reduce total cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol.
2. May Improve Blood Pressure
Some of the nutrients found in spirulina have been associated with better blood pressure management.
A more recent clinical trial analyzed the effect of taking spirulina on systolic and diastolic blood pressure. The results suggested that it may help reduce the risks of hypertension and that spirulina consumption may help reduce high blood pressure.
3. May Help Manage Blood Glucose Levels
Various studies focused on spirulina’s effects on blood glucose levels in diabetic and non-diabetic have been completed over the years.
Results from one study participated by patients with type-2 diabetes suggested that spirulina may help control blood glucose levels. Another trial found that spirulina supplementation may support the conventional treatment approaches for the same illness.
4. Potential Anti-Cancer Properties
To be clear, more research is still needed before we can say that spirulina helps with cancer treatment. But available data from previous trials showed promising results, suggesting this edible blue-green alga may improve the body’s protection from cancer.
Researchers who studied this superfood’s effect on experimental pancreatic cancer found that dietary supplementation of spirulina “substantially decreased” its growth.
5. May Promote Weight Loss
Some of the health benefits of spirulina include its capacity to lower total cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, and improve blood sugar. Together, these can help manage body weight.
This was supported in a 2016 study, where patients with hypertension (without cardiovascular disease) were given 2 grams of spirulina daily for two months. Researchers found a “significant reduction” in body weight, body mass index, and systolic blood pressure.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Spirulina a Plant or Bacteria?
Spirulina species are blue-green algae included in the cyanobacteria group. So, technically, it’s not a plant or an animal but a bacteria. It’s understandable to mistake spirulina for a plant because they share similarities.
Spirulina is rich in chlorophyll, which gives it its blue-green hue. And like plants, spirulina is also photosynthetic, so it also absorbs light energy, water, and carbon dioxide to produce chemical energy.
Is Spirulina Made of Seaweed?
No. Many algae are categorized as seaweed, but spirulina is not one of them.
What Are the Health Benefits of Blue-Green Algae?
Spirulina is just one of the nearly 2,000 species of blue-green algae. Other cyanobacteria species like chlorella and Klamath are popularly used in supplements because of their many health benefits.
A review of clinical trials on various cyanobacteria species noted that an in vitro study supported claims that blue-green algae, specifically spirulina and nostoc commune, has anti-inflammatory properties.
Blue-green algae are also found with antioxidant capacity. This suggests that some cyanobacteria species may help fight free radicals before they can cause damage.
The bioactive components found in spirulina, including GLA and carotenoids, may also help reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
Are Spirulina Supplements Safe?
We still need to see more research before spirulina can be recommended as a treatment option for any health condition, but spirulina supplements per se are generally safe to take.
A review of spirulina’s applications for human consumption noted that it had been subjected to various toxicological studies that vouched for its safety. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has included spirulina in its Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) Substances database.
That said, people with certain health conditions may have to avoid spirulina altogether. It contains the amino acid phenylalanine that people with phenylketonuria can’t metabolize. So patients with this metabolic syndrome are advised against taking spirulina.
Spirulina can boost the immune system. While that’s generally good, it can negatively affect someone with an autoimmune disease. Generally, it’s best to consult a doctor or a registered dietitian when taking spirulina. This way, you’ll also be informed on the right dosage.
Children, pregnant women, and breastfeeding moms may be more sensitive and face bigger risks, especially if they consume contaminated spirulina. So they’re not typically advised to take spirulina.
Nonetheless, to ensure safe consumption, make sure to purchase spirulina from reputable brands to avoid contaminated products with toxic additives.
How to Take Spirulina as a Dietary Supplement?
Spirulina is often taken as supplements in tablet and powder forms. The NIH says it’s safe to take up to 19 grams of spirulina in tablet form every day for two months. If you take lower doses of around 10 grams, you may safely extend your spirulina consumption for six months.
If you’re choosing spirulina powder, you can consume it as an addition to your food. You can include it in smoothies, salad, soup, and fruit juices to lessen its bitterness.
Spirulina: A Superfood Then and Now
It’s amazing how a nutrient-rich food source that’s been consumed for centuries remains a great addition to our diet to this day. And with the advancements in food science, spirulina has become more accessible and easier to consume. It means more people will enjoy spirulina’s many health benefits.
We can’t deny that we still need more research on spirulina’s preventive and curative effects for various diseases. Having a better understanding of what is spirulina and its nutrient composition shows its great potential to improve our overall health.
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