The Superfood of Algae

Green foods do not tend to be the most popular of the bunch.

Although they are typically seen as the superfoods of the world, dark leafy greens, green tea, avocado, and seaweed amongst others, many people are distrusting of the color itself. “Color is the single most important product-intrinsic sensory cue when it comes to setting people’s expectations regarding the likely taste and flavor of food and drink.” On top of being the color green, the concept of eating algae does not perk up the taste buds of most people.

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Hawaiian Spirulina Farm

Spirulina the Superfood
Spirulina, is an algae and classified as a cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae. This algae grows best in warm bodies of water and is often found in the ocean or alkaline lakes, and also has the ability to grow in spaces where other algae cannot, Africa in particular is a favorable location for Spirulina growth due to the temperatures in the region. Places in the United States range from Hawaii, California, Florida, and even New Mexico.

As ‘superfood-y’ as Spirulina is, it has yet to be signed off by the FDA, being that there is a lack of scientific studies proving its benefits. Truth be told I ran into Spirulina on Instagram from a health-conscious user whom I trusted, and then again at the grocery store when I found Nutrex Hawaiian Spirulina. I glanced at the label on the back listing the benefits and it caught me. Let me break down some of them:

  • Powerful antioxidant
  • High in protein and full of nutrients
  • May reduce the risk of heart disease
  • May reduce inflammation, especially in allergies, and boost immunity
  • May lower blood sugar
  • May possibly prevent fatigue
  • May protect the liver, brain, and kidneys

It’s a large list of “may” statements and was not/still is not completely backed by science in order to be prescribed. Nevertheless the nature of the benefits and the feelings of energy and immune support that I personally could feel, sold me.

Spirulina is a food of the past and future. “Aztecs harvested Spirulina from Lake Texcocoin central Mexico, and it is still harvested from Lake Chad in west-central Africa and turned into dry cakes.” Spirulina is rich in nutrients and essential amino acids, and is about 60-70% protein. Although it does not contain all 9 essential amino acids, making it unfit for complete protein dependence and support, it contains vital antioxidants that aid in repairing damage to cells.

Protein powders, creatine, and other forms of muscle-building supplements are additive intensive and can contain ingredients harmful to the user’s body. A major issue is the “FDA leaves it up to manufacturers to evaluate the safety and labeling of products,” making it potentially harmful as a consumer’s repetitive intake could lead to long term problems as well as add unnecessary sugars and extra supplements to the body.

Spirulina is solely algae, therefore it may not taste as wonderful as a chocolate protein shake, but with the right recipe, I argue it is actually better. Spirulina is also seen to come to aid for those athletes who depend on protein powders. “Antioxidants may help athletes recover from exercise-induced oxidative stress that contributes to muscle fatigue.” These same antioxidants are found in Spirulina, and include phenolic compounds, phycocyanins, tocopherols and beta-carotene. According to a 2010 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, researchers found that runners had an improvement in performance after taking Spirulina as opposed to taking other protein powders or having no substances at all.

Third world countries and the market of Spirulina
Spirulina has both local and global benefits, making it versatile and beneficial for a large range of people. An individual’s deficiency in nutrients can cause a weak immune system. Spirulina is seen to mitigate this deficiency by supporting the production T-cells. It can be easy to see the benefits of this superfood at a microscopic level, but the reality is this can be a helpful tool within third world countries that lack the resources and money to provide a complete nutrition and medical assistance for the population.

The micro-algae itself can come in various strains, each identifying with a unique combination of fats, starches, and proteins, making it useful in multiple ways:

  1. A food supplement used for high protein intake; beneficial in countries with malnourished children/patients with HIV/AIDS, while being able to establish a market within countries like the USA or Canada (strains such as Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima are commonly used for this).
  2. Oil used for bio-crude; if it has a high lipid count (substitute for petroleum, strains such as Botryococcus braunii or Chlorella ellipsoidea).
  3. Ethanol or biogas; if it contains high amounts of carbohydrates (Porphyridium cruentum and Spirogyra )
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The growth of Cyanobacteria, or Spirulina

The first type mentioned, Arthrospira maxima, is also known as Spirulina. IIMSAM (Intergovernmental Institution for the use of Micro-algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition) has “feeding programs [that] are renowned throughout western Kenya and on peak production IIMSAM provides Spirulina for about 150-200 malnourished children, as well as HIV/AIDS patients.” One economic struggle that is faced in the production of Spirulina in this region is the need for water, requiring a constant flow from a well as opposed to from water trucks.

On the production side, there are various Spirulina markets. With regards to drug formulations, such as powders, tablets, or liquid, production regions range from areas inthe United States to Spain and parts of Africa. With the rise in disposable incomes, as well as necessity for solutions to cancers, cardiovascular issues, and immune diseases, the market for Spirulina is promising and is projected to reach $779 million by 2026. In terms of sustainability, it is important to note the production of this micro-algae should be avoided in fresh water areas as it can effect the biodiversity of the region. Though the production by essentially man-made fit tanks, “takes less land, water, and energy to produce than staple crops like corn and soy,” as well as pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

As Spirulina becomes a more scalable product, prices have dropped, with an average 16 oz container costing between $15 – $35 – depending on the brand and how it is produced.

Local growers, the benefits, and your own Spirulina 

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Apogee Spirulina, located in northern New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains

Apogee Spirulina is a producer in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Their production focuses on turning Spirulina into sprinkles in an effort to share the benefits of the algae. They are dedicated to the practice as it is very low impact, water based, and only needs the sun to flourish. The farm itself is located at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico. As the region recieves around 300 days of sunshine a year, solar is the farm’s main source of energy (and is perfect for producing Spirulina the way the French have spearheaded, in large ponds set inside greenhouses).

Spirulina has provided food security across the world and provided farmers and fisherman a shot at a profitable lifestyle through its growing demand. “Arthrospira require less land and water than others and can grow in climates where other crops cannot in the country.” Small scale farms allow people to be trained and become proficient in the practice, making the development of the market greater.

I was able to reach out to Apogee Spirulina owner Nicholas Petrovic who gave me a glimpse of his business and his admirable passion for Spirulina and the community as a whole:

How did you get into the market for algae production and what has been the top benefits you’ve encountered since you’ve started?

How I got into algae? In the Spirulina world it picks you  – you don’t pick it. I had moved to Santa Fe back in 2009 to get into the sustainability field, but was not sure what though.

I ended up in the algae world because of the biofuels program at Santa Fe Community College. It was the only program in the US back then. It was a blast because we were all cowboys in the field, if we had an idea we ran with it. What changed everything for me was going to France in 2012 and interning on an artisan Spirulina farm. The rest is history… The top benefits have been turning people on to it. Older folks don’t really like it, where as young kids love it. When they understand the nutritional punch Spirulina has they go for it. The protein it has is at 60%.

Are there specific benefits to growing in weather such as New Mexico’s?

New Mexico has a long history of algae cultivation that goes back to the late 70s. We have lots of sunny warm days, so it’s perfect. If you want, check out the Aquatic Species Program that was started by President Jimmy Carter.

What personal benefits have you experienced from Spirulina?

Personal benefits for me have been getting folks to try it and seeing and feeling what it can do for one’s health. I love the energy it gives me, it sits in the background and it lasts pretty much all day. It’s not like coffee that makes you edgy.

What is the typical price point you charge for Spirulina and where can people purchase it from your farm?

My regular price is $22 (for 100 grams) through the website and at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic I have dropped my prices to $15, as I want everyone to have access to it. In this time of crisis it’s important for me to give back to my community. It is not all about money. I entered this field for humanitarian reasons also, as a society we have to take care of each other and not worry about having to turn a profit all the time.

As Nicholas states, Spirulina can do wonders for one’s health. He displays the dedication to providing easy access and education to the community so that we may all enjoy the wonders of Spirulina.

To close, Spirulina can be taken in many forms, but without the tablets or sprinkles it leaves someone with powder, which can be a difficult substance to mask the taste of. Have no fear, some quick recipes include:

A Fruit Smoothie:

  • 1/3 cup Frozen strawberries/blueberries
  • 1/2 cup Banana
  • 1/2 cup Coconut milk
  • 1 tablespoon of Spirulina

A Sweet Smoothie:

  • 1 Frozen banana
  • 1/2 cup Coconut milk
  • 2 Dates (cut up)
  • 1 tablespoon of Spirulina

An Easy Snack:

  • A serving of Greek yogurt (any flavor)
  • 1 tablespoon of Spirulina mixed in
  • Granola of choice

An Acai Bowl:

  • Acai pack from grocery store (Sambazon Organic Acai)
  • 1/2 Banana
  • 1/2 cup of coconut milk
  • Granola of choice for topping
  • Fruit of choice for topping

In general, get creative. These are easy ways to incorporate protein into your diet while enjoying what you are eating in the process. Spirulina may become a quintessential part of people’s diets as more research is explored. The green micro-algae has numerous benefits especially for our growing and demanding society which looks for innovative ways to improve on what we have now.

You can find Spirulina at your local grocery stores such as Sprouts, Whole Foods, as well as on Apogee Spirulina’s Website.

-Posted by Eliana

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