The Superfood Spirulina
During the last decades, there are several products that appeared like botanicals, nutraceuticals and others, which are located between the ordinary food and the medical drugs. A characteristic example of these products are the microalgae like spirulina, chlorella and others, which are also used in food supplements.
What is Spirulina?
Spirulina platensis, a blue green micro alga that took its name by its spiral filament-like appearance. It grows naturally in subtropical and tropical lakes which are characterized by high salt concentrations. Two are the most common species: S. platensis- in Asia, South America and Africa and S. maxima- Central America. Large scale cultivation of Spirulina started in the ‘80s in Mexico and China. Nowadays, producers of Spirulina are widely spread and the largest ones are in the USA, India, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Greece. (1)
History of Spirulina’s use
Spirulina has been part of the Mexican diet for hundreds of years. It was eaten by the Mexicans since the Aztec civilization. Aztecs harvested Spirulina in the Lake Texcoco. They used to dry it to make Spirulina cake as food. There are written descriptions of Spanish soldiers led by Cortez, talking about the use of Spirulina as food. Spirulina has also been used as food for centuries in some areas of Central Africa. A French phycologist published a paper in the early ‘40s, about the consumption of Spirulina by people of the Kanembu tribe, which is located near the Lake Chad in Africa. (2)
Nutritional Value of Spirulina
100 grams of Dried Spirulina Powder provide
● 373 kcals
● 4,3 grams of fat
● 17,8 grams of carbohydrates
● 63 grams of protein
Spirulina has a very high protein content (about 60-70% of its dry weight), of which 90% is digestible. Its protein content is about three times higher than beef’s and 10 times higher than soybean’s. Moreover, it contains all the essential amino acids in very high amounts. Additionally, only half of the provided fats are saturated.
The most abundant minerals in Spirulina are calcium, iron and phosphorous. Its concentration in phosphorous and calcium is comparable to the milk’s. The iron’s concentration is far higher than the iron concentration of spinach. Spirulina compared with cereals (are considered a good source of iron), provides more than 4 times higher amount of iron. Additionally, we need to highlight that people try to consume plenty of fibers. The negative side of consuming high fiber plant-based foods is that they contain oxalates and phytates which decrease the bioavailability of iron in vegetable sources like spinach. On the other hand, Spirulina is an oxalate-free food, thus, it provides iron and calcium with high- availability improving their absorption. Additionally, Spirulina contains some other minerals in significant concentrations such as zinc, magnesium, potassium and manganese. (4)
Health benefits of spirulina
Vitamin A deficiency
An Indian study of about 5000 pre-school children demonstrated that a single daily dose of one gram of Spirulina was very effective against chronic Vitamin A deficiency. Five months of Spirulina supplementation was enough to reduce Vitamin A deficiency from 80% to 10%, reducing the risks of blindness and neurological damage caused by Vitamin A deficiency. (5)
The nutritional value of Spirulina is globally and scientifically accepted. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations identifies the importance of Spirulina due to its high macro- and micronutrient content. Furthermore, the Food and Agriculture Organization proposes the use of Spirulina as a nutritional supplement in urban and rural communities where the diet is either inadequate or poor. (6)
In a Japanese human study, volunteers were given a hot water Spirulina extract. The regular consumption of this Spirulina extract resulted to significant improvement in immune markers. The researchers concluded that Spirulina extracts potentiate the immune system and additionally suppresses cancer development and viral infection. (7)
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
In Greece, several patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease were supplemented with Spirulina for a period of six months. The researchers of this study, reported that Spirulina supplementation at dosage of 6 g daily, improved markers of liver function and resulted to multiple beneficial metabolic effects. (8)
A Chinese study investigated the protective effect of Spirulina extract supplementation on oxidative stress in acute exhaustive exercise. It was reported that Spirulina supplementation resulted to increased performance. Furthermore, it was beneficial in enhancing the antioxidant status and limiting oxidative stress induced by acute exhaustive exercise. (9)
Hypolipidemic, Antioxidant and Antiinflammatory Activities of Spirulina
In agreement with the above studies, a Taiwanese study presented the cardiovascular benefits of Spirulina’s consumption. This study demonstrated that Spirulina had antioxidant, hypolipidemic and anti-inflammatory activities. (2)
Another study confirming the lipid-lowering effect of Spirulina was conducted in 2007. Researchers found that oral Spirulina supplementation (4.5 g/day, for 6 weeks) reduced triacylglycerols, Ldl- cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and systolic and diastolic blood pressure in volunteers. (10)
Studies have shown that the antioxidant capacity of spirulina is due to its content of phenolic compounds and other phytochemicals. (11)
Protective effect against heavy metals
According to studies, Spirulina showed a protective effect against the toxicity induced by carbon tetrachloride and metals like arsenic, cadmium and others. Spirulina also exerts a modulatory effect on detoxification, metabolism and antioxidant enzymes. (11)
In a human study, forty-one participants of chronic arsenic poisoning were treated orally by either placebo or Spirulina extract plus zinc, twice daily for 4 months. The researchers reported that supplementation with Spirulina and zinc may be useful for the treatment of chronic arsenic poisoning. (12)
Spirulina is considered as one of the most efficient superfoods. It may help you in several diseases. The long history of Spirulina’s use as food source and the great number of related studies, have shown that Spirulina is safe for human consumption. (2) Therefore, Spirulina could be part of your daily diet to get advantage of its benefits and provide your body with plenty of high quality nutrients.
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