Chlorella

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Chlorella, the single cellular distant cousin of Spirulina, is a natural nutrient powerhouse and a proven functional food. Chlorella was the first algal species to be mass cultured for its applications as food, feed and for harvesting its valuable nutraceuticals. It's health benefits and medicinal properties have been under the focus for far too long, but the scientific evidence procured in last few decades have lead to the commercial distribution of Chlorella as a dietary supplement, as an immunostimulant and in some other cases as an adjunct to combination therapies for the treatment of liver problems, fibrosis, diabetes and cancer.

The degrading quality of natural and processed food items caused due to the incessant use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers has been a growing concern all across the globe. Eating the food grown in polluted water and soil have caused the deposition of toxic chemicals and heavy metals in the human body. These chemicals are the root cause of the occurrence of many acute and chronic diseases, including cancer and metal poisoning/toxicity [1].

Given the fact that we cannot stop eating food, the only other option left is to detoxify the body. Natural detoxification of human body can be accomplished by the administration of antioxidant-rich superfoods. Chlorella contains a significant amount of proteins, polysaccharides, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, which makes it a perfect superfood [2].

An Alternative Food Source

The positive health implications of Chlorella have been known for years. The economic constraints inflicted due to the war, as well as population explosion, lead to a condition where there was a global scarcity of food. At that time people started searching for alternative food items which can compensate for the nutritional deficiency caused due to an insufficient food supply.

It was proposed that, since Chlorella contains almost all the components of a healthy and balanced diet, it may be used as a potential alternative food [3]. Thankfully, the world never came to it.

However, due to its rich green colour and potential health benefits, it has been traditionally used as a food additive and colouring agent [4] in many dishes including butter cookies.

Use in alternative medicinal therapies

Chlorella has been designated as a mine of active therapeutic ingredients; which is why it has been used as a core ingredient in many traditional Asian alternative medicine therapies. It is a very common food supplement in Japan, known for its energy-yielding properties. It is also known for its role in controlling excess body weight, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. More commonly, Chlorella extracts are used to treat Crohn's disease, asthma, ulcers, gastritis, constipation and metal toxicity.

The use of Chlorella in traditional Asian dishes and medicinal formulations dates back to the 19th century, but its new-found pharmaceutical interests are attributed to recent research findings pertaining to its structure, composition and pharmaceutical applications.

A Single-celled powerhouse of nutrients

Chlorella is a microscopic cell, around 2-10 ‎μm in diameter, but it houses a wide range of essential nutritional components. It contains all the biological components required for maintaining a healthy state of being. A single Chlorella cell has 60% protein, 20% carbohydrates, 11% lipids and the rest 9% includes fibre, vitamins and minerals [5].

If we compare the protein percentage, it is considerably higher than most other conventional sources of protein. Soy, the richest plant protein source contains only 30% protein, while veal, a rich animal source of protein has only 25%. Furthermore, the protein component of Chlorella contains all the essential amino acids required for the body.

In addition, Chlorella contains more than 20 vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin A, C, B1, B2, B5, B6, B12, folic acid, E and K as well as minerals like iron, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium etc.

Being a green algae, Chlorella is rich in chlorophyll, the green photosynthesizing pigment. That everyone knows, but what most people don't know is that the concentration of chlorophyll in Chlorella is even higher than that present in most plant species. Every one of us was taught in our childhood that green vegetables are healthy and they help in improving digestion, immunity, blood formation and prevents premature ageing. The active component of the green vegetables which supposedly impose these health benefits is chlorophyll [6]. Since Chlorella is certified as one of the richest sources of chlorophyll, it is obvious that including Chlorella in daily diet fulfils the requirement of eating green vegetables.

Medicinal properties

In addition to being a nutrient powerhouse, Chlorella also possesses some additional ingredients which have specified therapeutic implications in the human body.

Chlorella contains a unique Chlorella Growth Factor (CGF), which is responsible for enhancing the growth of beneficial gut microbes. This further helps in enhancing body immunity and providing resistance against common gastrointestinal infections. Due to the presence of CGF, Chlorella makes an excellent probiotic, which can be taken on a regular basis for enhanced immunity [7].

The probiotic activity of Chlorella is aptly complemented by its antibiotic component named chlorellin. On the one hand, Chlorella augments the growth of beneficial bacteria while on the other hand, it kills the harmful microbes present [8].

Furthermore, the sporopollenin detoxifying agent present in the Chlorella binds to the deposited heavy metals and toxins and removes them from the body system. This is the reason why Chlorella makes an excellent body cleanser or detoxifier [9].

All these nutritional and therapeutic components make Chlorella a superfood, loaded with proteins and antioxidants. Due to these properties, Chlorella can prevent the occurrence of cancer, help in protecting the body against oxidative stress, and other chronic diseases like diabetes and COPD [10].

The health implications of regular administration of Chlorella extracts have been studied in clinical trials, and it has been proved that supplementation of Chlorella extracts with daily diet can augment the process of treatment in hyperlipidemia and hyperglycemia patients.

Cultivating Chlorella on a mass scale

The potential dietary and therapeutic benefits of Chlorella can only be realised if it is made available on a large scale, at an affordable price. The most important species of Chlorella cultivated on a large scale include Chlorella pyrenoidosa and Chlorella Vulgaris.

Inherently, Chlorella is a unicellular freshwater microalgae i.e. grows inland water bodies like lakes and ponds. Cultivation of Chlorella for commercial applications needs to be fast, cost efficient and reproducible. As of now, the large-scale cultivation of Chlorella is usually done in specially designed circular concrete ponds. The ponds are flooded with inorganic nutrient solution in which the seed culture is inoculated. The most important way of ensuring healthy growth of the algae is by sparging the culture solution with carbon dioxide and maintaining timely and sufficient exposure to sunlight.

In order to eliminate the effect of environmental chnages on the growth rate of Chlorella cultivated in open ponds, scientists are proposing the use of photobioreactors. Though a bit more costly, but these photobioreactors can help in indoor cultivation of Chlorella at a uniform rate.

The latest figures indicate that Chlorella is mostly grown in Asian countries like Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan, from where it is exported worldwide [11]. The exported raw Chlorella is then processed and marketed either as powder, tablet or capsules. The global market of such algae based food supplements is growing fast, and Chlorella and Spirulina are leading the way.

How is Chlorella different from spirulina?

Most people know that Spirulina and Chlorella are both algae and are recommended as the highest grade green superfoods. What most people don't know, is that Spirulina and Chlorella belong to two entirely different algal groups. While Chlorella is a green algae (chlorophyta) with a spherical single cell, spirulina, as the name suggests is spiral in shape and belongs to Cyanophyta or the group of blue-green algae. What this implies is, spirulina contains the blue coloured phycocyanin pigment along with chlorophyll, while Chlorella contains only chlorophyll.

Apart from this, the nutrient profile of both the algae is similar, with very few differences. However, there is a considerable difference between the cost of the powdered extracts of Spirulina and Chlorella. The reason behind this is the thick and hard to break cellulosic cell wall in Chlorella. If the cell wall is not ruptured then the wholesome goodness of Chlorella will be of no use [12]. The extra cost incurred in the process of rupturing the cell wall of Chlorella is reflected in its market price.

 

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