What Is Spirulina?

The algae has been consumed for centuries and gained a "superfood" health halo in recent years — here's everything you need to know about it.

When stacked against options that are more conventionally protein-packed, algae doesn't normally spring to mind as a top-tier health food. But certain types of algae have long been part of the human diet. For a start, nori and other forms of edible seaweed typically belong to families of red, green and brown algae. And if you're already a fan of protein supplements and other trending health products, then you've likely already sampled the other major algae we've been snacking on for centuries — a blue-green algae known as cyanobacteria, more commonly called spirulina.

Cultivated worldwide, the green-blue algae has been used in its powder form to enhance all sorts of foods, including popcorn, smoothies, and nutritional bars. So for those unfamiliar with the ingredient, we've put together a brief explainer. Read on if you'd like to learn more about what spirulina does, how to use it and where to stock up.

What Is Spirulina?

As Harvard Medical School explains in a health blog entry, spirulina is a blue-green algae known as cyanobacteria. Generally, it's grown in manmade and natural lakes alike, and since it can survive conditions that other water-dwelling organisms would not be able to thrive in, it's relatively easy to cultivate in a number of climates worldwide. In particular, it seems to thrive in alkaline water.

Spirulina has been added to food or eaten by itself for centuries. Before Spaniards invaded Aztec lands, natives of Mexico used to grow it in alkaline lakes before dehydrating the algae and selling the result as dried cakes, also called "Aztec cheese." Of course, as Mexico News Daily explains, the Spanish colonizers did not approve of the Aztec's cultivation of the algae, and so drained many of the lakes where spirulina was grown and harvested.

Centuries later, Mexico once again began producing spirulina after a company that produced lye discovered the cyanobacteria growing in their vats in the 1970s. Once the company discovered what the algae was, the company renamed itself to Spirulina Mexicana and began distributing spirulina worldwide. Eventually the company went out of business due to organizational problems.

Over the years, spirulina has also become well-known because NASA has used it as a nutritional supplement for its astronauts. Most commercial spirulina is today produced by the U.S., Europe, and South America.

Spirulina tablets and powder in bowls

But Is Spirulina Good For You?

One of the reasons that spirulina has been sought after for centuries is because it boasts a surprisingly dense list of nutrients. It's one of the best non-animal based sources of protein, making it a good nutritional boost for vegans and others who rely on plant-based foods. It's also quite a rich source of beta-carotene, various minerals and gamma linolenic acid, a fatty acid essential to health. All-in-all, it's not a terrible choice for those hoping to up the nutritional benefits of their food.

However, as with most so-called "superfoods," claims about spirulina's merits should be swallowed with a bit of skepticism. As Harvard's blog points out, spirulina advocates have claimed the substance capable of treating a plethora of maladies, including diabetes, hepatitis and high cholesterol. And while some studies do show some promise for spirulina's ability to help with issues like high cholesterol and hay fever, most scientists acknowledge the need for larger studies and further research.

There are few known negative side-effects of taking spirulina. However, the algae may negatively affect those sensitive to sodium, since it contains some salt. Cyanobacteria should also be completely avoided by anyone suffering from phenylketonuria or an autoimmune disorder, since it contains an amino acid that people with this condition cannot metabolize completely.

Where Can I Buy Spirulina?

Spirulina can be found in specialty health stores or in the health aisles of some grocery stores. It can also be bought through online vendors such as Amazon, although customers should be sure to research the company selling the algae and read reviews before purchasing spirulina. Like some other nutritional foods that have become popular on the market, spirulina's production is not monitored by the FDA; this means that dishonest companies might market products as pure spirulina when they contain little to no actual cyanobacteria.

Generally, spirulina is sold in a powder form, so it's easiest to add to smoothies, drinks, and other liquid-heavy foods. Some enthusiasts prefer adding a couple of tablespoons to foods that are already naturally green, like guacamole or spinach dip, for an extra nutritional punch. You can also include it in baked goods as long as the powder is fully incorporated into the dry ingredients. And if you don't care for the taste but still want the benefits, you can always buy spirulina in tablet form and add it to your usual vitamin line-up.

Eating algae may not seem like the most delicious of activities. But for those who don't mind a few unconventional nutrients, a little cyanobacteria can go a long way. If you're interested in finding more of your protein outside of animal products, consider popping a tablespoon or so into your next smoothie. Your body will appreciate the extra benefits, and your tongue will likely be unable to tell the difference.

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