Margaret E. Woltjer, Ph.D. | September 2008

Spirulina is a one-celled form of microalgae that thrives in warm, alkaline water, especially around Mexico and Central Africa. The largest commercial producers of spirulina are located in the United States, Thailand, India, Taiwan, China, Pakistan and Myanmar.

The term spirulina actually refers to a large number of blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria. Its color comes from the pigmentation of both chlorophyll (green) and phycocyanin (blue) found in its cellular structure. Even though spirulina is distantly related to kelp algae, it is not found in the sea. Fresh-water ponds and lakes generally contain the level of alkalinity (in the range of 8 to 11 pH) and the temperature range (anywhere from 85 to 120 degrees F) necessary to sustain it. Incredibly, certain species of Spirulina are adapted to surviving in desert-like conditions where the water sources evaporate and temperatures reach around 160 degrees F. Under these conditions the algae becomes dormant and turns to a sweet-tasting whitish powder.

This unique ability of Spirulina to survive, and grow, under these conditions virtually ensures its hygienic status since no other organisms can survive to pollute the waters in which the algae grows. This property makes it one of the cleanest, most naturally sterile foods found in nature. It is also unique because it has neither the hard indigestible cell walls that plants have, nor does is have the type of nucleus found within animal cells. Since it relies on photosynthesis to generate its source of food energy, it more closely resembles other forms of plant life. But, because it retains its nutritional value when subjected to high temperature—something plant foods cannot do—it has an excellent shelf-life.

The reason the Spirulina has distinguished itself from among the thousands of other forms of microalgae is that it packs a walloping amount of protein as well as essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and enzymes. For example, compared with beef, which is about 25% protein, Spirulina contains anywhere from 55% to 77% protein (depending on its source). It is also one of the few plant sources of Vitamin B12, with a one gram tablet (or one teaspoon) providing roughly three times the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin B12. This is approximately twice the amount found in a comparable serving of liver. While its potential value as a source of food and nutrition, especially in protein-starved Third World countries, cannot be disputed, researchers are raising some concerns about its use and the potential for misuse.

For example, in spite of being a valuable resource in the fight against world hunger, most of the research since 1970 has focused on its potential to fight against and prevent diseases. And, while it has the potential of targeting many common health problems, research studies done so far have been on animals and in petri dishes; and the variations in research design have made it very difficult to compare research findings. However, because some results are quite promising, it would be well worth the effort of designing high-quality studies to continue exploring its benefits for the following: An anti-inflammatory agent, controlling diabetes, eye disorders, lowering blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, use as a food supplement, a possible appetite suppressant, and as an agent for lowering blood pressure. To date, the most accurate statement we can make is that the results are unclear, but hint at the possibility for some benefit for humans. Until we have more data, here are a few facts to keep in mind if you choose to use Spirulina:
  • Spirulina may interact with certain drugs taken for immune system disorders, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, neurologic conditions, blood thinners, and anti-inflammatories;

  • Spirulina may interact with drugs you may already be taking for weight management, cancer, heart disorders and osteoporosis;

  • Spirulina may interact with certain dietary supplements and herbs, causing these to react more strongly than when taken without spirulina;

  • The safety of taking Spirulina while pregnant or breastfeeding has not yet been determined;

  • Due to its high protein, vitamin, and mineral content, the danger of taking excessive amounts is increased (damage to the liver and kidneys is a potential concern here);

  • Now that Spirulina is being commercially produced, environmental controls can ensure that the product is purer; however, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not strictly regulate herbs and supplements, so there is no guarantee of the strength, purity, or safety of these products from one brand to another;

  • The cost of commercially producing pills and powders from Spirulina is around ten times what it costs to grow and harvest it. For now this will almost certainly delay it’s availability as a viable response in addressing the problem of world hunger.
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