English: Spirulina (dietary supplement) powder made from cyanobacteria genus Arthrospira. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A friend of mine asked me a few weeks ago “why is spirulina so good for you?”. I replied “I’m not sure – what is it?”, to which he responded, “it’s green powder that my wife puts in my smoothie.”
At first I thought – That’s gross! And I’m not a fan of powdered versions of anything. But I needed to check into the facts to see what I could find out. Here’s what I learned:
What Is Spirulina?
Spirulina is basically blue-green algae. It is grown in alkaline lakes within 35 degrees of the equator. Mostly, it comes from Mexico and parts of Africa. It is thought that the Aztecs used it as a source of nutrients. For those of us who don’t live in these places, we find it dried and processed into powder or tablets.
In terms of nutrition, spirulina has the following:
- is concentrated in protein (up to 70%)
- contains vitamins, especially B12 and provitamin A (β-carotenes)
- contains minerals, especially iron
- is rich in phytochemicals (phenolic acids and tocopherols) and γ-linolenic acid
- Spirulina lacks cellulose cell walls and therefore it can be easily digested
Evidence (or lack of) for Spirulina
I learned that it is not easy to find good, objective information on spirulina. Most of the information I found was from someone promoting their own product or service (hello conflict of interest!). However, I did find one good review in a literature search. This review gave me the following information:
It has been well documented that Spirulina exhibits anti-inflammatory properties by inhibiting the release of histamine. It is also theorized that it can play a role in many different health conditions including cancer prevention, allergies and fibromyalgia. The thought is that the anti-cancer effects of spirulina probably come from the beta carotene in it. However, there has only been one trial on spirulina in human subjects, and the trial design wasn’t very good.
[FYI – for the strongest evidence, a study should be a double blinded, randomized trial. However, this particular trial was unblinded (participants knew they were taking the treatment) and non-randomized, which makes it hard to figure out if the results are from the treatment or from something else.]
Essentially, what was concluded from the review is:
- The positive effects of Spirulina in allergic rhinitis are based on
adequate evidence but larger trials are required.
- It is believed that
the anticancer effects of Spirulina are perhaps derived from β-carotene,
a known antioxidant
- There are some positive studies on
the cholesterol-lowering effects of Spirulina but larger studies are
required before any definitive conclusions can be made.
are no high-level evidence trials on the role played by Spirulina in
chronic fatigue and in antiviral applications.
The bottom line is “at the moment, what the literature suggests is that Spirulina is a safe food supplement without significant side-effects but its role as a drug remains to be seen.”
Safety of Spirulina
Although this particular review concluded that spirulina is a safe food supplement, I think the authors meant that theoretically, consuming spirulina is safe. However, what I have found in doing further research from quality health information sites, is that there is actually a good amount of concern over the safety of spirulina supplements.
Mainly, this concern comes from the lack of quality control in the supplement industry. NYU Langome Medical Center states that Blue-green algae can contain a kind of highly toxic substance, called anatoxin. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (by they way, they have a GREAT herb/supplement database!) issues a warning that “microcystin contamination can cause hepatotoxicity, renal failure, and neurotoxicity. Products should be certified free from contamination.” I also learned that batches of contaminated spirulina have been seized by the FDA because of these concerns.
Since the toxins are not routinely tested for by all manufacturers, do your research to find a quality product that has been 3rd party tested. My favorite source for 3rd party testing of supplements is Consumer Lab.
It is so important for all my readers to know that the supplement industry is NOT REGULATED. AT ALL! That means you cannot trust the claims on the label. I actually assume that all claims are false until proven otherwise by an unbiased party. If I can’t find an unbiased party to give me a conclusion, then I assume that it’s false and move on.
Julie’s Bottom Line:
Spirulina is a good choice for plant based nutrients. It offers protein, although there are much cheaper options for a protein supplement. It does provide minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals, but you are also getting these from most of the other fruits and vegetables that you consume each day.
So here are my professional, and personal conclusions:
Yes, you should buy it if you’re already getting a good variety of nutrients from real food, and like the idea of adding it to your diet. Make sure that your sources is 3rd party tested or reviewed. Just because the bottle says it’s a pure source means nothing.
No, you should not buy it if the cost of it breaks your budget or prevents you from purchasing other healthy foods. Or don’t buy it if you eat a healthy diet and don’t feel compelled to try it.
Go forth and choose your own adventure! I don’t think you can make a bad choice either way.
PS – here are some recipes I found from The Fresh Grocer that you can try, if you so choose:
Blend the following ingredients:
- 1 cup Almond Milk
- 1 banana (can be frozen)
- 1 Tbsp (or more) Spirulina
- 1 – 2 tsp almond or peanut butter
- 2 tsp flax meal
- ½ cup coconut oil
- ⅓ cup honey
- ½ tsp sea salt
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- ¼ cup Spirulina
- ¾ cup sesame seeds
- ¾ cup chopped walnuts (or any nut)
- Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix together.
- Press into a 9″ x 9″ pan and refrigerate.