What is spirulina?

What is spirulina?

Team ErbologyErbology

With its bright colour, distinctive flavour, and wealth of potential health benefits, spirulina is taking the world by storm. So, what is spirulina? How can it boost your wellbeing? And what’s the best way to add it to your diet? In this article, we cover everything you need to know about this exciting ingredient.

June 02, 2023 7:30 pm

What is spirulina?

Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae, which grows in nutrient-rich, alkaline freshwater environments. That includes tropical and subtropical rivers, lakes, and ponds. It has an earthy, salty taste, a bit like seaweed or spinach, and is an extremely impressive source of nutrition.

To get technical, spirulina is an edible biomass of cyanobacteria – thought to be among the oldest life forms on earth.(1) It gets its vibrant colour from a pigment called phycocyanin, which also offers a wealth of potential health benefits. More on that later!

Although spirulina has made headlines in recent years as a trendy health food, people have been eating it for centuries. The Aztecs harvested the algae from Lake Texcoco, and their messengers used it to boost their endurance on long runs.(2) Meanwhile, the Kanembu people living beside Lake Chad in Africa use it to make traditional sundried cakes called dihé.

What’s exciting is that modern research is finding evidence to back up this ancient wisdom on the benefits of spirulina. In fact, thanks to its rich nutritional profile and convenient cultivation techniques, space agencies are incorporating spirulina into astronauts’ diets. NASA and the European Space Agency are investigating its use for both long-term space flights and missions to Mars.(3) The hope is that spirulina could both provide astronauts with the nutrients they require and protect them against some of the negative impacts of spaceflight on the human body.

So, what is spirulina? Everything from an ancient dietary staple to a futuristic space food! Consuming it can also be a fantastic way to boost your wellbeing here on Earth. Let’s take a closer look at the potential health benefits of spirulina, and how to include it in your diet.

What is spirulina good for?

Now that we’ve covered the question of what is spirulina, it’s time to talk about why it’s good for you. What is spirulina used for, other than keeping astronauts healthy? As it turns out, quite a lot!

To begin with, spirulina is rich in numerous key vitamins and minerals. These include potassium, iron, vitamin C, copper, magnesium, manganese, calcium, and several B vitamins, which all have important health benefits. For instance, copper helps the body to produce energy, and iron is vital for maintaining healthy blood. Meanwhile, thiamine (vitamin B1) supports the functioning of your nervous system.

Spirulina is also high in beta-carotene, an antioxidant that our bodies convert to vitamin A. This plays a key role in eye health, suggesting spirulina might be good for protecting our vision.(4) In addition, spirulina is a complete protein. That means it contains all nine essential amino acids, making it particularly useful for those on a plant-based diet.

Interestingly, spirulina may additionally be able to alleviate the symptoms of allergic rhinitis. This is when the inside of your nose becomes irritated and inflamed due to an allergic reaction (e.g. hay fever). Studies suggest spirulina could be more effective at improving symptoms such as sneezing, itching, and congestion than certain pharmaceutical antihistamines.(5)

Spirulina might even be useful for treating anaemia in older adults. Research indicates that the algae can enhance immune function and increase haemoglobin levels in red blood cells, easing symptoms of the condition.(6)

Moreover, some studies have found that spirulina might have anti-cancer properties. However, further investigation is required to clarify its effectiveness in this regard.(7)

What is spirulina good for: the power of phycocyanin

As mentioned above, phycocyanin is the pigment which gives spirulina its vivid colour. Yet that’s not all this compound is notable for! It’s also a potent antioxidant with several potential benefits for our wellbeing.

For example, as an antioxidant, phycocyanin can inhibit inflammation and protect our cells from oxidative damage caused by free radicals.(8) This is vital because evidence links both oxidative stress and chronic inflammation to a multitude of harmful health conditions. These include arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and type 2 diabetes. Phycocyanin may even have neuroprotective effects, although further research is needed to confirm this benefit.

Speaking of diabetes, evidence suggests that as well as reducing inflammation, spirulina might help to lower blood sugar levels.(9)

Interestingly, research also indicates that spirulina could support weight loss. Studies have found that including it in your diet might assist in reducing body fat, waist circumference, and BMI.(10) This may be partly because phycocyanin helps to decrease the amount of fat absorbed by the small intestine.

As mentioned above, the Aztecs used to eat spirulina as a way to boost endurance. Spirulina’s antioxidant properties, along with its capacity to increase haemoglobin levels, may explain why it’s able to enhance exercise performance.(11) Studies have found that supplementing with spirulina can help to improve muscle strength, oxygen uptake, and stamina. So it could be a superb choice for those who like to hit the gym or play sports!

What is spirulina good for: the benefits to cardiovascular health

When discussing the question of what is spirulina good for, cardiovascular health is one of the most notable answers. There are several ways in which the colourful algae could improve the health of your heart.

First, it can have a positive influence on your cholesterol levels. Research shows that spirulina works to lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, while simultaneously increasing ‘good’ HDL cholesterol.(12) This helps to support cardiovascular health and reduce the risk of developing heart disease.

On top of this, the antioxidants in spirulina contribute by reducing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, further protecting heart health.(13)

Another way in which spirulina can lower your risk of heart disease is through its effect on blood pressure. Studies show the algae is able to significantly reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.(14) This is particularly true for people who have high blood pressure. Researchers believe it does so by increasing the production of nitric oxide, which helps blood vessels to relax and dilate. This in turn improves blood flow throughout the body.

The fact that spirulina has anti-inflammatory properties compounds all these benefits. That’s because chronic inflammation can lead to serious cardiovascular problems, including atherosclerosis, heart attacks, and strokes.

What is spirulina like in terms of side effects?

Experts generally consider spirulina to be safe, with a low risk of experiencing side effects from taking it. Having said that, the algae may not be suitable for everyone to include in their diet. As an example, although it’s rare, some people are allergic to spirulina. Of course, if you experience any negative symptoms after consuming it, it’s best to seek medical attention straight away.

Those with existing health conditions or who are on any medication should speak to their doctor before taking spirulina. This is to ensure you avoid any unwanted interactions or side effects. For instance, people with autoimmune diseases or a condition called phenylketonuria are advised not to take spirulina. Likewise, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should seek medical advice before adding the algae to their diet.

One of the biggest concerns with spirulina relates to the quality of the specific product you buy. When spirulina is cultivated in suboptimal conditions, there is a risk of it becoming contaminated with chemicals, toxins from bacteria, or heavy metals.(15) These can cause damaging side effects if ingested. As such, it’s crucial to choose a spirulina powder from a reputable company that you trust.

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“From keeping astronauts healthy to boosting our wellbeing here on Earth, spirulina has a wealth of benefits to offer.”

What is spirulina powder?

With all these potential health benefits to be enjoyed, you might now be wondering how to add spirulina to your diet. If sourcing fresh algae and adding it to your meals sounds difficult or unappealing, don’t worry! There is a more convenient option: spirulina powder.

So, what is spirulina powder? We mentioned at the start of this article that spirulina naturally grows in tropical and subtropical lakes, rivers, and ponds. These days, with demand for the algae increasing, people also cultivate it in contained pools under more controlled conditions. Once harvested, the growers will strain, wash, and dry the spirulina before making it into powder. Companies may either package and sell this powder as it is, or compress it into tablet form.

You can add spirulina powder to various drinks and dishes as an easy and effective way to boost your wellbeing. Not to mention, it brings an intense burst of bright green colour to your glass or bowl!

Introducing our spirulina powder

As discussed above, quality is a critical factor when it comes to spirulina powder. That’s why here at Erbology we put it at the forefront of our product creation process. Our team combines 35 years’ expertise in growing spirulina with a decade of research at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. This enables us to determine the optimum conditions in which to cultivate the algae for our organic spirulina powder.

For example, we grow our spirulina in a small region in the Balkans. This is the only area in the whole of Europe with the environmental factors necessary for the algae to flourish.

On top of which, we are one of only three producers which cultivate spirulina in a protected way inside conservatories. What is spirulina grown inside protected from? Not only dust and insects, but also other kinds of algae that can grow alongside spirulina. This is important because so far scientists have only determined eight species of algae to be safe for human consumption. That’s out of more than 20,000 varieties!

In addition, unlike many other spirulina producers, we don’t use drying machines. Instead, we dry the algae naturally using a patented process. This ensures that the nutritional content of the spirulina is not destroyed by high temperatures. As such, you get a powder with the maximum potential health benefits.

Finally, we don’t use any pesticides or other chemical additives in the cultivation or production of our spirulina.

What is spirulina powder like to eat?

Spirulina powder can be something of an acquired taste! The simplest way to take it is to stir a spoonful into a glass of water and drink it. However, some people find the flavour and scent a little off-putting. Spirulina has salty seaweed notes, with bitter, grassy, and earthy undertones. You might sometimes see people describe it as ‘fishy’, but this usually means that the spirulina is of inferior quality.

Because of its unique taste, many people choose to mix spirulina powder into other dishes and drinks. Happily, there’s no shortage of recipes that you’re able to use the powder in. So, having covered the questions of what is spirulina and how can it benefit you, let’s round off with how to take it.

Ways to incorporate spirulina powder into your diet

What is spirulina best enjoyed with? Well, one of the great things about the powder is how versatile it is. You can add spirulina to both food and drink, and it complements a wide variety of sweet and savoury ingredients. Here are some ideas to get you inspired.

First, spirulina works perfectly in smoothies. It brings a gorgeous green colour to your drink, and balances out the sweetness of fruits like mango and pineapple. Likewise, spirulina is a fabulous choice for brightening up yoghurt or a breakfast bowl. For a quicker option, you can also stir a teaspoon of powder into a cup of juice.

If you enjoy baking, spirulina makes a fantastic addition to snacks like energy balls. Just pop a spoonful into your base of nuts, seeds, and dried fruit as you make them. You could even mix some into batter to create vibrant green spirulina pancakes!

As well as sweet dishes, spirulina can work brilliantly in savoury meals. For instance, try using it in a homemade salad dressing, or sprinkling some on top of rice dishes. We recommend having some fun and experimenting in the kitchen to find which recipes you enjoy spirulina in the most!

So, what is spirulina? Perhaps your new favourite ingredient!