Superfoods, Maca, Chlorella and Spirulina. What makes them so super?
But what exactly makes these foods so ‘super’?
While there is no official medical definition, those given a ‘superfood’ status contain high doses of beneficial nutritional compounds (such fibre and antioxidants), enabling them to help promote health and prevent disease1,2. Three superfoods growing in popularity are maca, spirulina and chlorella.
Maca as a Superfood
Growing in popularity over recent years, this indispensable root extract is a nutritional powerhouse. Traditionally used by Peruvian locals as a valuable source of food and medicine, the maca plant thrives in extreme conditions at high altitudes, often being found on top of the Andes mountains. As part of the vegetable family, the plant’s root marks a resemblance to a radish but has an assortment of different colours it comes in including cream, yellow, black, red and white. It was used in ancient Incan medicine as a source of energy and strength, particularly to their warriors to increase their stamina. Now heralded as a popular superfood across the world, maca has a variety of medicinal benefits, particularly in the areas of sexual health and energy3,4.
Maca is known to help both men and women in a variety of areas including hormone balancing, erectile dysfunction, sexual performance, libido, premenstrual syndrome and menopausal symptoms5. There’s conflicting research in this area, but a whole range of studies have shown the enhanced sexual effects of maca, including several which have shown it to have a beneficial effect on sexual desire6,7.
A natural energy booster, maca is often taken when enhanced mental and physical performance is required, helping to maintain optimal stamina. This has led maca to become a popular feature in the sports industry, and fans of caffeine have turned to maca as an alternative way to revitalise8.
Moreover, there’s even evidence that maca has positive effects on anxiety and depression which are associated with low energy and a loss of libido9.
Spirulina as a Superfood
Originally extracted from tropical freshwater lakes in Africa and South America, spirulina is characterised by its blue-green colour and spiral appearance, thus its ‘spirulina’ name. Its resilient nature means it can adapt and even thrive in harsher conditions than other organisms would, including environments with a high concentration of salt, deserts and volcanic areas. With its high protein content and rich in essential amino acids, vitamins (B, C, D, K), minerals (iron, calcium, phosphorous), folic acid, beta-carotene, fibre, iodine, selenium and 5-HTP to name a few, this powerful superfood has been consumed for hundreds of years. This includes its use in Chinese medicine as a cure-all ingredient and even dates as far back as the Aztecs. The rising popularity of spirulina as a superfood means that it’s now farmed to meet high demand, helping more people than ever reap the health benefits of this nutritious microalgae10,11,12,13.
Spirulina helps protect the cells in the body by promoting antioxidant production which attacks dangerous free radicals affecting the health of our cells11. In fact, one study showed that spirulina can enhance the antioxidant status and inhibit oxidative stress when participants were partaking in acute exhaustive exercise14.
Through its effects on glycemic control, spirulina can help with boosting energy levels and regulating weight maintenance. It’s also an excellent source of protein which can be particularly useful for vegetarians who are looking for an alternative rich source. These properties mean that spirulina may be able to help with health issues such as diabetes, weight loss and fatigue10,11,15.
Assisting in the vitality of the immune system, studies have shown spirulina helps to improve immune markers and may even help towards suppressing cancer development and viral infections16,17.
Chlorella as a Superfood
Often likened to spirulina, superfood chlorella is in good company. Gaining its green colour from natural Chlorophyll, this green alga is sourced from freshwater and is widely grown in Japan and Taiwan. Chlorella has an interesting history, traditionally used as a way to combat famine and malnutrition. Considered a ‘wholefood’, it provides us with the majority of nutrients we need in order to live a healthy life. Rich in protein, fibre, vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, selenium, and beta-carotene, this nutritious superfood provides a wealth of health benefits. While it’s no longer cultivated as a food source, it can be incorporated into our diet to improve digestion, aid metabolism and provide us with vital nutrition18.
Chlorella can act as a detoxing agent in organs such as our liver, kidneys and gallbladder which can boost our metabolism and vitality. Research conducted in Seoul Korea on healthy participants even showed beneficial immunostimulatory effects from the supplement19.
Consumption of chlorella has also been shown to be particularly beneficial to our gut microflora, maintaining normal colonic function and reduce irritation found in the gut wall. This is related to its detoxing properties, having been shown to bind to unwanted heavy metals and naturally eliminate them. These toxins in the body not only irritate the lining of the gut but allow bad bacteria to flourish18. Removing them prevents this from happening.
Lowering cholesterol and blood sugar
There have been several studies on how chlorella may be able to help in the fight against cholesterol, diabetes and weight gain. One study20 which tested the effects of chlorella-intake on subjects (including those with high-risk factors) found a noticeable reduction in cholesterol, body fat percentage and blood glucose levels when fasting. They identified that chlorella may activate certain genes on a cellular level which may improve insulin signalling pathways and fat metabolism. Research is ongoing in this area.
While there’s a lot of hype surrounding superfoods, their nutritious benefits are something that can only be a positive step towards leading a healthier lifestyle. Choosing the right ones for you depends on the areas in your life that could do with a boost and any health issues which you’d like to take positive steps with. Maca, spirulina and chlorella are in high demand, and it’s not hard to see why. Their nutritional benefits are helping people both nationally and globally. The popularity of superfoods sees no sign of waning, and with such nutrition available in such small servings, you can incorporate them into your diet in a variety of ways.
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- Health (2016) Superfoods you need now. Available at: http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20306775,00.html
- Merriam Webster (2014) Definition of superfood Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/superfood
- Gonzales, G.F., et al. (2002) ‘Effect of Lepidium meyenii (MACA) on sexual desire and its absent relationship with serum testosterone levels in adult healthy men’, Andrologia, 34(6), pp. 367-372.
- Dording, C.M., et al. (2008) ‘A double-blind, randomized, pilot dose-finding study of maca root (L. meyenii) for the management of SSRI-induced sexual dysfunction’, CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, 14(3), pp. 182-91.
- Stone, M., Ibarra, A., Roller, M., Zangara, A. and Stevenson, E. (2009) ‘A pilot investigation into the effect of maca supplementation on physical activity and sexual desire in sportsmen’, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 126(3), pp. 574-576.
- Liping, L., Qian, L., Yiquan, W. and Guorong, Y. (2011) ‘Spirulina platensis extract supplementation attenuates oxidative stress in acute exhaustive exercise: A pilot study’, International Journal of the Physical Sciences, 6(12), pp. 2901-2906.
- Hirahashi, T., Matsumoto, M., Hazeki, K., Saeki, Y., Ui, M. and Seya, T. (2002) ‘Activation of the human innate immune system by Spirulina: augmentation of interferon production and NK cytotoxicity by oral administration of hot water extract of Spirulina platensis.’, International Immunopharmacology, 2(4), pp. 423-434.
- Kunte M. and Desai, K. (2017) ‘The inhibitory effect of C-phycocyanin containing protein extract (C-PC extract) on human matrix metalloproteinases (MMP-2 and MMP-9) in hepatocellular cancer cell line (HepG2)’, The Protein Journal
- Kwak, J.H., Baek, M., Woo, Y., Han, J.K., Kim, B.G. and Kim, O.Y. (2012) ‘Beneficial immunostimulatory effect of short-term Chlorella supplementation: enhancement of Natural Killer cell activity and early inflammatory response (Randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial)’, Nutrition Journal, 11, pp. 53-71.
- Mizoguchi, T., Takehara, I., Mazuzawa, T., Saito, T., and Naoki, Y. (2008) ‘Nutrigenomic studies of effects of Chlorella on subjects with high-risk factors for lifestyle-related disease’, Journal of Medicinal Food, 11(13), pp. 395-404.