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Spirulina is a human and animal food or nutritional supplement made primarily from two
species of cyanobacteria: Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima.
Arthrospira is cultivated worldwide, used as a human dietary supplement, as well as a whole food, and is available in tablet, flake and powder form. It is also used as a feed supplement in the aquaculture, aquarium and poultry
An illustration from the Florentine Codex showing how the Aztecs harvested spirulina off lakes by skimming the surface with ropes and then drying the algae into square cakes which would be eaten as a nourishing condiment.
Spirulina was a food source for the Aztecs and other Mesoamericans until the 16th century; its harvesting from Lake Texcoco and subsequent sale as cakes is described by one of Cortés'
soldiers. The Aztecs called it Tecuitlatl, meaning stone's excrement.
Spirulina was found in abundance at Lake Texcoco by French researchers in the 1960s, but there is no reference to its use there as a daily food source after the 16th
century. The first large-scale spirulina production plant, run by Sosa Texcoco, was established there in the early
Leo Szilard postulated the development of algae-based food supplements (which he called "Amruss") in his 1961 short story, The Voice of the Dolphins.
Spirulina may have an even longer history in Chad, as far back as the 9th century Kanem Empire. It is still in daily use today, dried into cakes called dihé, which are used to make broths for meals, and also sold in markets. The spirulina is harvested from small lakes and ponds around Lake
Nutrient and vitamin
Spirulina contains about 60% (51–71%)
protein. It is a complete protein containing all essential amino acids, though with reduced amounts of methionine, cysteine and lysine when compared to the proteins of meat, eggs and milk. It is, however, superior to typical plant protein, such as that from
legumes. Overall, while spirulina is often marketed as an excellent source of protein, it is no better in this regard than milk or meat (in that they are all complete proteins), and is approximately 30 times more expensive per gram of
Spirulina is not considered to be a reliable source of Vitamin B12. The standard B12 assay, using Lactobacillus leichmannii, shows spirulina to be a minimal source of bioavailable vitamin
Spirulina supplements contain predominantly pseudovitamin B12, which is biologically inactive in
humans. Companies which grow and market spirulina have claimed it to be a significant source of B12 on the basis of alternate, unpublished assays, although their claims are not accepted by independent scientific organizations. The American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada in their position paper on vegetarian diets state that spirulina cannot be counted on as a reliable source of active vitamin
B12. The medical literature similarly advises that spirulina is unsuitable as a source of
Spirulina's lipid content is about 7% by weight, and is rich in gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), and also provides alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), linoleic acid (LA), stearidonic acid (SDA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid
Spirulina contains vitamins B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (nicotinamide), B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folic acid), vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin A and vitamin
E. It is also a source of potassium, calcium, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, sodium and
Spirulina contains many pigments which may be beneficial and bioavailable, including beta-carotene, zeaxanthin, chlorophyll-a, xanthophyll, echinenone, myxoxanthophyll, canthaxanthin, diatoxanthin, 3'-hydroxyechinenone, beta-cryptoxanthin and oscillaxanthin, plus the phycobiliproteins c-phycocyanin and
Possible health benefits and risks:
Spirulina contains phenylalanine, which should be avoided by people who have the metabolic disorder phenylketonuria, where the body cannot metabolize this amino acid, and it builds up in the brain, causing
damage. Because spirulina is a dietary supplement, the United States Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the production and quality of the product. Spirulina is a form of cyanobacterium, some of which are known to produce toxins such as microcystins, BMAA, and others. Currently, no standard exists to regulate the safety of
In vitro researchSpirulina extract inhibits HIV replication in human T-cells, peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) and Langerhans
An in vitro study in 2008 concluded that Spirulina may possess iron-chelating properties. Human neuroblastoma cells were treated with a toxic amount of iron, and then treated with Spirulina. When treated, the iron-induced oxidative stress was
Animal researchSpirulina helps prevent heart damage caused by chemotherapy using Doxorubicin, without interfering with its antitumor
activity. Spirulina reduces the severity of strokes and improves recovery of motor control after a
stroke; reverses age-related declines in memory and learning; and prevents and treats hay
A study on the metabolism of mice indicates that it has little effect on their metabolism, and therefore probably that of humans,
A study with diabetic rats concluded that Spirulina maxima was effective in correcting the abnormal carbohydrate and lipid metabolisms caused by excess fructose within the
A 2010 study concluded that a spirulina dietary supplement was shown to delay the onset of motor symptoms and disease progression, reducing inflammatory markers and motor neuron death in a G93A mouse model of
Human researchIn undernourished children with or without HIV infection, Spirulina has been found to increase weight gain and correct
anemia. Spirulina has been reported as a treatment for melanosis and keratosis due to chronic arsenic
A study in 2005 found that spirulina protects against hay fever. A more recent double-blind, placebo-controlled study in 2008 concerning 150 allergic rhinitis patients found that Spirulina platensis significantly reduced the secretion of pro-inflammatory interleukin-4 by 32%, and the patients experienced symptomatic
A 2007 studyfound that 36 volunteers taking 4.5 grams of spirulina per day, over a six week period, exhibited significant changes in cholesterol and blood pressure: (1) lowered total cholesterol; (2) increased HDL cholesterol; (3) lowered triglycerides; and (4) lowered systolic and diastolic blood pressure. This study, however, did not contain a control group; researchers cannot be confident that the changes observed are due totally, or even partially, to the effects of the Spirulina maxima, as opposed to other confounding variables (i.e., history effects, maturation effects or demand characteristics). A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled intervention study involving geriatric patients determined that spirulina helped to significantly reduce the LDL-to-HDL ratio after four months of
A 2007 study concluded that spirulina improved the antioxidant potential of many geriatric patients who were administered it for 16 weeks. The plasma of these patients showed a measured increased level of total antioxidant
status. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study in 2006 found that spirulina supplementation decreased the amount of creatine kinase ( an indicator of muscular breakdown) in individuals after exercise. Furthermore, the experimental group's time to exhaustion during all out treadmill exercise increased by 52 seconds. These effects were thought to be due to spirulina's antioxidant
According to analysis of research by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), taking spirulina blue-green algae does not seem to help reduce
Organic certificationUntil recently, much spirulina was certified organic. In 2002, the USDA's National Organic Standards Board voted to disallow the use of Chilean nitrate. They granted a three-year window to spirulina producers, which expired in 2006. As a result, leading spirulina manufacturers have stopped labeling their spirulina as organic, citing safety concerns of nitrate
Parry Nutraceuticals was the first company to introduce Organic Spirulina as per the new USDA NOP standards using pure vegetarian nitrogen sources.
AdvocatesThe United Nations World Food Conference in 1974 lauded spirulina as the 'best food for the future'. Recognizing the inherent potential of spirulina in the sustainable development agenda, several Member States of the United Nations came together to form an intergovernmental organization named the Intergovernmental Institution for the use of Micro-algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition
(IIMSAM). IIMSAM aspires to build a consensus with the UN Member States, international community and other stakeholders to make spirulina a key driver to eradicate malnutrition, achieve food security and bridge the health divide throughout the world.
Both NASA (CELSS) and the European Space Agency (MELISSA) proposed Spirulina as one of the primary foods to be cultivated during long-term space missions.