Is Spirulina the New Green Superfood or Just a Nutritionally Dense Algae?
Spirulina is all the rage. But it’s also on the receiving end of some pretty far-out health claims. So what’s real and what isn’t?
New Year, new superfood! And this year, we’re discussing the super green food spirulina. What’s spirulina, you ask? It’s a blue-green algae that grows in the ocean and has been used as a nutritional supplement in recent years. Along with its nutritional benefits, there are other super(inflated) claims out there. But does spirulina get the green light when it comes to its health benefits, or is there a cautionary blinking yellow light in the distance?
Before I go into the claims, let’s sort out the facts. Spirulina is actually nutritionally dense, meaning that there are quite a bit of nutrients in a small amount of calories. A tablespoon contains only 20 calories, but offers 4g of protein and 11 percent of your daily recommended iron intake. So if you’re trying to find ways to boost protein in your diet or if you’re anemic (like myself), a spoonful a day can go a long way. It also contains magnesium, potassium, and folate, and it’s been approved by the FDA for use as a natural food coloring agent to give foods — such as ice cream, desserts, yogurts, and ready-to-eat cereal — a beautiful blue/green color.
And … that’s it! Yup, those are the facts, just the nutritional data. Outside of its nutritional content, spirulina has been the subject of some pretty lofty, unscientific claims. A quick search of the internet and you’ll see claims that it can benefit those with allergies, depression, diabetes, and even AIDS. Unfortunately, the science is out on this. Some are claims with no scientific evidence, and others have a study, but one that wasn’t done well.
There are other claims about it detoxing, even to the point of removing bacteria in the blood, which seems a little far-fetched. I might be convinced to believe this … if it were a real thing. But as we’ve discussed before, you don’t need to detox if you have normally functioning liver and kidneys — and if you have bacteria in your blood, also known as septicemia, you would be in the ICU.
Spirulina is sold in tablet, capsule, or powder form. Because contamination is a serious concern, consider buying it from a reputable seller. Also, there are warnings that women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should avoid it, as well as those with phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare inherited disorder that causes phenylalanine, an amino acid, to build up in the body. And one more thing: It can interact with medications, so consult your doctor if you plan to use it.
Spirulina does have some nutritional benefits, but outside of that, the other claims don’t have much weight. And with more than a few concerns about contamination and drug interactions, for some, it may be better to give spirulina the red light.