Spirulina is an edible cyanobacterium, a division of bacteria commonly referred to as blue-green algae, and is widely-available in tablet and powder form as a dietary supplement.
There are many claims when it comes to the benefits of spirulina, but a larger amount of scientific and medical research is needed to back up these promises. Here’s a look at some of the reported benefits along with a straightforward take on how likely these purported effects are.
Spirulina Is a Good Source of Protein
Look at the number of protein grams
There are around 57 grams of protein in 100 grams, or 3.5 ounces, of dried spirulina. This size portion of spirulina also contains roughly 290 calories. In comparison, the same size serving of tuna has 30 grams of protein for 184 calories. Beef has 26 grams of protein for 250 calories and chicken breast meat has 21 grams of protein for 172 calories.
Understand the amino acid content
Containing all the essential amino acids, spirulina is technically a complete protein, but the bacteria provides small quantities of certain amino acids like lysine. With this in mind, the National Institutes of Health is quick to point out that spirulina is not quantitatively better than more traditional sources of protein such as meats and milk.
Spirulina Does Contain Vitamins and Minerals
Compare the nutrition facts
Dried spirulina itself is loaded with iron and also contains valuable servings of manganese, magnesium, potassium, zinc, vitamin K and many of the B vitamins including thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid but not vitamin B12.
The dried algae also contains fat, but over-the-counter supplements and powders provide altered forms of spirulina, which are often free of fat and contain a unique set of nutrition facts. Sometimes components like vitamin B12 will be listed, but the version of the vitamin contained may not actually be biologically accessible for human benefit.
Spirulina May Lower Cholesterol and Reduce the Risks of Cardiovascular Disease
Look at the studies
Early studies have showed some positive effects for people taking spirulina supplements daily. In one study, the algae lowered low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and in another study the algae had an additional desirable influence on the blood cholesterol profile by also increasing high-density lipoproteins, which are known as good cholesterol.
The helpful result for those with normal or elevated cholesterol levels can help reduce the likelihood of developing cardiovascular problems. Although spirulina is also reported as a weight loss tool on occassion, research has not shown the algae to have that kind of effect on participants.
Recognize the implications
Even though spirulina may have a positive effect on cholesterol levels, much more research is needed to conclusively identify the algae as an effective tool for treating problems. If you have a medical condition in need of professional attention, consult with a doctor to discuss your problems and to receive the treatment necessary for your personal situation.
Review Test Tube and Animal Studies
In laboratory experiments involving test tubes and animals, spirulina has been shown to increase the production of antibodies and infection-fighting compounds while also protecting against allergic reactions. The algae may even be able to boost the immune system, treat infection, relieve allergy symptoms, reduce anxiety and depression, fight against influenza, herpes and HIV while also shrinking precancerous lesions.
Determine if the Taste is Really for You
If you expect spirulina to taste like pond water, you’ll likely be proven right when you go to sample the product for yourself. Spirulina powder is designed to mix in with liquids such as water, fruit or vegetable juices so you may be able to mask the taste enough for your personal likings. Because the dried bacteria also comes in tablet form, those who are really disinterested in the taste can certainly opt for the pills to supplement their diet.
Recognize that Toxicity May Be a Concern
Spirulina itself as an edible bacteria, but not all blue-green algae are safe for human consumption as some produce toxins that can cause gastrointestinal discomfort in the short run and serious liver problems in the long run. When evaluated by independent organizations, some spirulina supplement products contained traces of such toxins because of contamination with the non-edible forms of blue-green algae. Spirulina can also easily be contaminated with heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and mercury during the cultivation and production process. If you want to add a spirulina supplement to your diet, be sure to only buy from brands that you trust with transparent manufacturing practices.
Take the Cost into Account
If cost is a factor in your personal dietary decisions, you might also be interested to note that a one-pound or 454-gram container of spirulina powder may set you back anywhere from $20 to $45. Looking at protein grams per dollar, a pick like tuna may have just become a whole lot more appealing to you.
Follow the Medical Advancements
If you’re interested in using spirulina to solve any of these health conditions, stay informed on the relevant findings and studies so you understand what insights are being added with each new scientific or medical breakthrough. In the meantime, be careful when arbitrarily taking dietary supplements or self-treating serious conditions. The blue-green algae may negatively interfere with some medications you may be currently taking so proceed with caution, doing your own research and consulting with a medical professional as needed.