Sustainable Living

Spirulina: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Forget your daily life-saving coffee doses: spirulina, the ancient superpower algae is here to give a boost to your 2018 – but with some precautions.

Much has been said and written on Arthrospira platensis, commonly known as spirulina. Spirulina is an edible blue-green alga that naturally grows in water and is available in tablet, flake and powder form as a nutritional supplement. Once part of Aztec and Roman diets, spirulina is now a familiar and fashionable name on pharmacy and health food stores shelves worldwide. It has also been praised by Olympic athletes of the likes of Lee Evans, the FAO has labelled it the “food of the future” to fight malnutrition and the NASA is even planning to use it in their futuristic space programs. But why is one the oldest edible plants on earth all the rage today?

The Good

When you think that approximately 60% of spirulina’s weight is made of vegetable proteins (almost 3 times more than lean meat), no wonder that athletes, gym goers and fitness pros would hail Spirulina as one of the best superfoods to supplement regular exercise and boost energy.

And if you went a little overboard during Christmas and you’re keen to start 2018 with a post-holiday diet, you should probably know that spirulina could be your best weight-loss buddy. This alga can fulfil most of your basic nutritional needs and has an extremely low number of calories; it has also been shown that taking a regular dosage of spirulina 1 hour or so before your meals will help you feel quite full, reduce cravings and curb your appetite.

Still in post-Christmas mode, if you’re now back at work lacking concentration or feeling tired, you’d be happy to know that the high concentration of amino acids (that help our muscles and regulate our hormones) in spirulina can also reduce fatigue, and support focus and stamina. Worthy of note are tryptophan – great for sleep aid and anxiety relief – and phenylalanine, which improves memory and learning (if one of your new year’s resolutions is to learn that foreign language you’ve always wanted to speak…)

In addition to being rich in proteins, spirulina is also an actual vitamin powerhouse. Let’s take Vitamin A (aka beta-carotene) for instance, notoriously good for our vision, bones and skincare: Spirulina contains significantly more than the traditionally chosen carrots. Or the full spectrum of “Beneficial Bs” – Vitamin B1, B2, B3, B6 – which all help fat and carb metabolism – B12 (improving our mood, helping our nervous system and relieving pain) B9 (or folic acid), helping maintain and produce new cells. Last but not least, spirulina works wonders thanks to the anti-ageing functions of Vitamin E. And how could we forget its minerals? The superfood has approximately 8 times more calcium than milk and about 30 times more iron than spinach, in addition to sodium, potassium, and magnesium – just to mention a few.

The Bad and the Ugly

There are other important considerations to make prior to purchasing spirulina-based products. First, as mentioned before, spirulina is an alga that grows in water. Therefore, however beneficial it may be, it may be exposed to a high risk of pollution and contamination as it has the tendency to absorb heavy metals, such as mercury and lead, from its surrounding environment. There has been much debate as to the safety of spirulina coming from sources in Japan (and namely the potentially radioactive areas around Fukushima) and China, where the presence of high level of toxic substances remains a hot topic. Spirulina also comes with intrinsic risks. It has been found that it has a high concentration of BMAA (toxin linked to neurodegenerative disease) and microcystins (toxin harmful to the liver.)

After reading all the benefits listed above, the urge to rush to the nearest pharmacy may be hardly reined in. However, just like with any other nutritional supplements, it is strongly recommended to get the opinion of a specialist or a health care provider who may provide the best advice based on your specific situation. For instance, potential interactions with your current diet or medications.

Useful Tips Before Your Purchase

Before you choose your spirulina brand, take a moment to go and see a knowledgeable healthcare provider and ask for advice on dosage and potential side effects, especially if you’re a pregnant woman or you have a particular condition.

In light of what has been described, it is important to follow these steps at the very least:

  • Buy a reputable brand of spirulina.
  • Check where the spirulina was grown and avoid the areas with high risk of contamination (even if these products are cheaper.
  • Choose spirulina for which testing is done at every stage of production.
  • Look for products that do not contain a high concentration of microcystins.
  • Make sure you know you’re buying a pure strain to avoid the risk of taking BMAA. Additionally, when spirulina undergoes a proper drying process, it is incapable of producing any BMAA.
  • Purchase certified organic spirulina from an ethical source to ensure it is cultivated without controversial fertilisers.
  • Don’t give spirulina to a child without talking to a doctor first.

When you are ready, just google some healthy and delicious spirulina recipes and you’re all set!

About the author

Karen Gammarota

I am an avid traveler and language lover with extensive experience in translation and content/quality management. Fluent in English, Italian, French and Spanish, I am enthusiastic about digital, writing and editorial experiences that activate audiences and impact or inspire lives.

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