What’s fresh and colorful and lives under the sea? A lot of really good-for-you food sources.
For years, nutritionists have touted the health benefits of eating iodine-rich seaweed and consuming the brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids found in high concentrations in fish oils. But spirulina is the latest one that’s grabbing people’s attention.
This dark bluish green algae is common in freshwater ponds and other large bodies of water; in particular, it flourishes in warm climates with alkaline water, such as Asia, South America, and Africa. It’s considered by many researchers to be a true superfood, defined as “a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being.”
What is spirulina?
Spirulina is similar to other nutritional algae options, such as kelp and chlorella, and its history actually dates back to the 14th century when Aztecs made it a big part of their diets. They were clearly on to something.
The algae is considered one of the richest whole food sources found in nature. It has the entire suite of antioxidants, is rich in vitamins and minerals, and is comprised of nearly 70 percent protein (that’s more per surface area than even beef and soy).
It’s so nutritious that at the 1974 United Nations World Food Conference, officials declared it as “the best food for the future” and a key component in fighting the epidemic of global malnutrition. It even soon began to be used by astronauts on extended missions in order to maintain a healthy diet while in space.
Because of the growing popularity, suppliers in the U.S. have started to take note of spirulina and are harvesting their own supply, especially as many market forecasters have predicted revenue potentials to greatly increase in the coming years as algae becomes a more predominant health food.
The one concern with this type of algae, though, is that it needs to be purchased through a trusted supplier that goes through the proper steps to clean the plant and make it safe for consumption since it can be easily contaminated with toxins and absorb heavy metals from the bodies of water where it’s grown. But securing a quality product can reap wonderful rewards for many people.
The biggest benefits of spirulina
While it may seem strange at first, eating blue green algae can deliver some tremendous health benefits. It’s most often in pill or powder form, making it convenient and almost tasteless—and though it can be pricey, the positive outcomes are well worth it.
Better skin, nails, hair
By weight, spirulina contains between 50 and 70 percent protein, as well as all of the essential amino acids that the body is unable to produce on its own. In fact, some studies have found that as little as two tablespoons of spirulina could fulfill all the protein the body needs in a single meal.
While it may not be easy to incorporate as a sole source of protein due to its cost, it can be a supplement in many diets, particularly for plant-based eaters. Protein is important because it’s the building block of the human body, responsible for producing skin, hair, nails, muscles, and tissue. In other studies the focus of spirulina’s effect on skin has been targeted to how it helps prevent UV damage, improving appearance and also reducing the risk of melanoma.
Optimal thyroid function
Like many other sea foods, spirulina offers an incredible amount of iodine. This essential mineral is needed by the thyroid gland to function, which contributes to many important body processes such as metabolism, heart rate, even breathing patterns.
Spirulina contains the same amount of calcium, magnesium, and phosphorous as milk. All three of these minerals contribute to the strength of the entire skeletal system, from the bones to the teeth and skull.
Effective allergy relief
Recent studies have singled out spirulina as an effective medium to improve symptoms of seasonal allergies, such as nasal congestion and itching, sneezing, and runny eyes. Spirulina has been theorized to actually stop the release of histamines that cause all the discomfort.
Immune system support
As well, spirulina has been seen to stimulate the immune system—so much so that those with autoimmune diseases and overactive immune responses are cautioned about taking spirulina. Studies have found that the high levels of antioxidants inside this algae could be behind this phenomenon, which help to fight off free radicals that can wear down cells and make them more susceptible to illness. Therefore taking a regular dose of spirulina could fight off common pathogens and keep you feeling healthy—even during rampant cold and flu season.
More control over blood pressure
If left untreated, high blood pressure (or hypertension, as it’s also called) can lead to increased risk for heart disease, stroke, and other serious medical conditions. But adding spirulina to your daily diet can help create more normal readings. That’s thanks to the high concentrations of potassium, which works to open up blood vessels, making them less restricted and able to work more efficiently.
Spirulina has also been seen to lower amounts of bad cholesterol present in the bloodstream, which further helps to unclog arteries and contributes to better heart health.
Improved mental cognition
Cognitive ability, memory, and academic performance can possibly be enhanced with spirulina. One study found that students that took just two grams of the superfood each day had a 10 percent improvement in their academic scores. It’s not for certain exactly how much of a role spirulina had on this increase, but the research is promising, especially given the large amounts of omega-3’s found in this aquatic plant, which is known to boost brainpower. Another study found that taking spirulina could also help protect the brain from diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Better eye health
Spirulina contains a compound known as zeaxanthin. This carotenoid works in tandem with lutein to support eye health; in fact, regular use of spirulina could help prevent the development of macular degeneration as you age.
Blood sugar maintenance
Type 2 diabetics may find a natural way to keep blood sugar levels in check with spirulina. In some studies, it was seen as outperforming traditional medications like Metformin in controlling blood sugar spikes and decreasing concentrations of lipids.
Reduced risk of some cancers
The overabundance of antioxidants and the presence of chlorophyll in spirulina can come into play in reducing the risk of some cancers, too. One study found that those that chewed tobacco but also regularly used spirulina had effectively reduced precancerous lesions in the mouth over the same population that didn’t use spirulina.
One of the other nutrient benefits of spirulina is a good amount of iron. This mineral is responsible for healthy red blood cell formation and also the delivery of oxygen to the cells of the body. A diet rich in iron will help cut down on deficiencies that can lead anemia, which makes people feel weak and tired.
While more research is needed to qualify some of these benefits, the plethora of studies done thus far give further proof of spirulina’s reputation as a health superfood.
Creative and tasty ways to enjoy spirulina
While daily use of spirulina isn’t required to tap into its health benefits, the more it’s incorporated into your diet, the more that can be gained from it. There are numerous ways to enjoy this superfood, here are just some of Thrive Market’s favorite products:
Love burritos, quesadillas, and sandwich rolls? Wrap them up in these nutritious tortillas. Made with spirulina, flax seeds, turmeric, and a mix of veggies, they’re a raw and gluten-free way to enjoy all your favorite comfort foods without the guilt.
Snacktime doesn’t have to set back your health goals. Instead of reaching for a bag of greasy potato chips or candy bars, open up a packet of these raw organic super chips made from spirulina and sesame seeds, and sweetened with banana, coconut, and dates. It’s a great way to increase your daily intake of iron and fiber in a snack that tastes deceivingly good.
Ground-up powder is one of the most common presentations of spirulina, and one of the most versatile. Add it to morning smoothies, yogurt, oatmeal or even baked goods for a health boost. It’s not only easy, but your kids will never know the food they’re eating is good for them.
No more passing on the pizza when you can make a nutritious and delicious crust with Wrawp’s gluten-free creation that packs in the algae plus sprouted buckwheat, flax and sunflower seeds, and a mix of veggies. Add some organic pasta sauce, cheese (or vegan cheese), and all your favorite toppings to get your own piece of the pie.
This health bar combines organic spirulina with dates, cashews, and agave nectar for a protein-packed snack like none other. It's great for those who are on the go and have little time for meals, and can also be a tasty and filling snack. The entire bar is certified kosher and organic.