Spirulina is a blue-green algae that can be consumed by humans and other animals. It is cultivated worldwide as two species (Arthrospira platensis and A. maxima) and used as a dietary supplement or whole food. It is often used as a feed supplement for animals and more recently it has found a growing place in human food preparations.
Its appeal comes from several of its qualities. It is an ecologically sound, sustainable, nutrient-rich, dietary supplement. It is used to address food security, malnutrition, and as dietary support for dieters, athletes and even as a part of long-term space flights like the Mars missions. It requires less land and water requirements to produce high quality protein and energy.
I first encountered spirulina in a family wedding’s welcome bag. It contained some spirulina in a form called Crunchlina from the company SoulFresh Proteins (formerly SunFresh Proteins). It turned out that the owners were related to the bride, so I got to meet them at the event.
They grow/farm spirulina year round to make products and also forms that can be added to beverages, salads, cereals, sauces, baked goods and toppings.
Before I consumed the Crunchlina, I did some research. Let’s face it, if you ask people if they want to taste some blue-green algae, I don’t think you will get a lot of takers. There are other sources of protein, such as insects, that are also sustainable, but they are all a tough sale.
One scary fact I found online is that there is some questionable spirulina in the market that comes from some questionable producers. A lot of the bad stuff comes from outside the United States (China, India) and the spirulina is then stored and shipped over long periods of time that destroys the nutrient value. That algae is also grown and shipped using environmentally unfriendly methods. This means that what is sold is unreliable and providing little or no nutritional value. In the worst situations, the product can be harmful.
And that is why I have stayed with products from SoulFresh which is produced in Rhode Island, USA. Their founder came from the agriculture world producing refined vegetable oils to bakeries, restaurants and food product manufacturers. Their Agcore Technologies has been around since 2013. Their original goal was to grow a high protein alga that could be used in human and animal nutrition. (BTW, alga is the singular; algae is the plural. Good trivia fact) Their research found non-GMO spirulina to be the best choice. The challenge was to grow the blue-green alga in their cool New England climate. The coolness also has an advantage as growers closer to the Equator have to shut down in hot summer months.
It is grown in greenhouses that use the Sun for photosynthesis, rather than artificial lightning. They harvest daily, dry at low temperatures, and provide a very fresh and optimal product.
Cyanobacteria (Cyanophyta, a phylum of bacteria) obtain their energy via sunlight through photosynthesis. The name cyanobacteria comes from the color of the bacteria via the Greek word kyanós means “blue.” They are more commonly referred to as “blue-green algae”
It has been on Earth for a long time. We know that spirulina was a food source for the Aztecs and other Mesoamericans. They would harvest it from Lake Texcoco in Mexico. They would dry it and make into small cakes. Cortés’ soldiers knew of it by the Aztec word “tecuitlatl.”
Spirulina fell away as a food source as those ancient people were pushed into civilization and the draining of their surrounding lakes for agriculture and urban development. Tecuitlalt/spirulina seems to have disappeared from human use or study until the mid-20th century when French phycologist Pierre Dangeard mentioned a cake called “dihe” that was consumed by the Kanembu tribe in Africa. The tribe harvested it from Lake Chad and surrounding small ponds much in the way that the Aztecs did. The dihe was studied and found to be a dried purée of the spring form of the blue-green algae, and it was being combined used in broths, sauces and other foods. In the 1960s, botanists confirmed that dihe is made up of spirulina.
An accidental bloom of algae in a chemical production facility led to a very systematic and detailed study of spirulina. After publishing about the growth requirements and physiology of spirulina, one effect was . the start of large-scale production in the 1970s.
I use their CrunchLina as an energy snack but usually use it as I would use granola in yogurt, salads and cereals. The spirulina is blended with a variety of good stuff like Vermont maple syrup, cashews, pecans, sunflower seeds, raisins, flaxseed and cinnamon. What it doesn’t contain are binders, artificial flavors or colors. You will not take a bite and think, “Oh, this is algae.” It tastes great.
For the purer form, I use their spirulina powder in smoothies and in things like breads (especially my banana and zucchini breads!). They have added new products including HempLina. As the name suggests, it contains spirulina and full spectrum CBD from hemp. They add cinnamon to mask the “green” flavor. They have also started adding CBD. Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of some 113 identified cannabinoids in cannabis plants such as hemp and marijuana. Unlike, “pot,” CBD lacks the THC that gets people high, but it does have other properties, including pain relief. CBD is a hot topic these days and is being used to reduce anxiety, cognition, movement disorders, and pain. The Hemplina triple-combo can be used to try to help improve various ailments including inflammation, mood, energy, digestion, skin health and pain relief. The product is water-soluble and so can be blended into liquids (smoothies, juice, coffee, tea all work for me). I also sprinkle it for the cinnamon flavor on cereals, toast and baked goods.
A properly grown spirulina used as a food will have protein levels over 60%. It has more: antioxidants than blueberries, more iron than spinach, more calcium than milk, more beta-carotene than carrots. It also has more protein than steak on a gram-per-gram basis and it is being vegan-approved.
If you decide to try spirulina, do some homework on the producer.
It is quite remarkable and I can only imagine that interest and use of this spirulina will increase in the future. In fact, it may be, unfortunately, necessary to use it in the future.
I also found some other uses for spirulina, but I can’t personally vouch for its use as a body scrub or facial mask!