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Spirulina is the botanical name for a tiny bluish-green algae, measuring just half a millimeter in length.
In reality, and contrary to popular belief, it is not an algae, but a cyanobacterium, although some official bodies, such as the WHO or the UN, still call it “algae”.
The Latin word Spirulina means “small spiral” and describes a structure that has this shape.
Spirulina has a multicellular structure and develops as a plankton in freshwater (Mani, Desai and Iyer, 2010). Today, it is known that there are more than thirty species of Spirulina.
In Spain, specifically, there are platensis crops in the rich mineral waters of the Sierra Espuña natural park, in the province of Múrcia, which are renowned for their high quality.
A little history about Spirulina platensis
Spirulina-type microalgae (Spirulina platensis) appeared on Earth 3.5 billion years ago and thus became the first organisms capable of photosynthesis.
This role was fundamental for our planet, since it reduced the so high levels of carbon dioxide, thus promoting an oxygen-rich atmosphere. This gave rise to more evolved life forms (Biesalski, 2017).
The first men to consume this seaweed as food were the tribes of Africa settled in the surroundings of Lake Chad. In times of poor harvests and food shortages, regular consumption of spirulina met their needs and helped them maintain their health.
The Aztec populations also used this seaweed as a staple food, which allowed them to develop highly populated cities without problems of lack of food.
As we said previously, Spirulina can be cultivated by man, and in this cultivation there are 2 notable advantages (Biesalski, 2017) that make it highly desired:
- It is resistant to bad environmental conditions: Spirulina requires fresh water (it is enough that there are small puddles), in salty environments and with alkaline soils. Characteristics that, curiously, would hinder the growth of other vegetables and that, however, favor the development of this very special cyanobacterium. This advantage favors that in areas of the planet where these characteristics are met (for example, Lake Kossorom, in Chad (Africa), spirulina is cultivated to satisfy the food needs of the population.
- Its production is very economical: The cost of its cultivation is minimal, even less than the cost of growing the cereal. One hectare of Spirulina cultivation produces a greater amount of protein than the same space (in hectares) dedicated to bovine livestock.
Its nutritional value is one of the main causes of its recent success. The WHO issued a statement in 1993 on the revolution that the cultivation of spirulina could bring to certain areas of the planet with infertile soils and serious problems of malnutrition, such as Africa (Misbahuddin, Islam, Khandker et al., 2016).
Thus, in its statement, the WHO explicitly states that Spirulina is a very suitable and essential food for the future of many peoples, as it is rich in iron and protein and can be administered without risk to children (Biesalski, 2017; Watanabe, Takenaka, Kittaka-Katsura et al., 2002).
For its part, the UN, through the Intergovernmental Institute for the Use of Microalgae against Malnutrition, promotes the use of microalgae (in particular, that of Spirulina) to combat and eradicate malnutrition in the world (Baicus, and Baicus, 2007).
The Nutritional Contribution of Spirulina Seaweed
Let’s see, below and in more detail, what is this nutritional contribution of spirulina.
As considered by the WHO, spirulina is recognized today as one of the richest foods in nutrients. Specifically, Spirulina has (Biesalski, 2017; Mani, Desai and Iyer, 2010; Misbahuddin, Islam, Khandker et al., 2016):
- Between 50 and 70% protein, when meat only contains 18 to 22%, and soy 30%.
- These proteins are vegetable, and have a digestibility coefficient of 95%, and they are also high-quality proteins, as they do not contain cholesterol, saturated fats, antibiotic residues, pesticides or synthetic hormones, as could occur in the animal protein.
- The type of amino acids that make it up is very balanced, unlike most plant proteins, which have significant deficiencies in some of them.
- Spirulina contains a complete spectrum of the 22 existing amino acids, of which 8 are essential and must be ingested in the daily diet.
- It is the richest natural food in Vitamin B12, fundamental in the synthesis of DNA, the formation of red blood cells and cells of the stomach walls.
- Spirulina algae is between 2 and 3 times richer in Vitamin E than wheat germ, essential agent against cellular aging and arteriosclerosis.
- It also contains Vitamin F, which is gamma-linolenic acid, and polyunsaturated fatty acids, which have the property of regulating the immune system and the permeability of cell membranes.
- It is very rich in iron, potassium, and also in calcium, and with a low amount of sodium, Spirulina is a fundamental algae and highly recommended to include in the diets of athletes.
- Contains between 15 and 25% sugars, so it provides a large amount of quick energy without causing hypoglycemia.
- Spirulina is also rich in chlorophyll, phycocyanin, and sulfolipids. All of these substances enhance metabolic functions, act as natural antiseptics and, in addition, reinforce the body’s defenses.
- It provides more beta-carotene than carrots, and since beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A in the body, Spirulina is very effective, among other things, for vision and skin elasticity. Carotenoids also act as antioxidants, removing free radicals and contributing to the protection of health.
In view of these characteristics in its composition, it is evident why this cyanobacterium is considered one of the superfoods of the moment, since its cultivation can eradicate hunger in many places on the planet where famine lurks irreparably.
This makes it enormously beneficial for those people who are most in need of vitamins, minerals, trace elements and amino acids (Wu, Ho, Shieh and Lu, 2015).
In future articles we will analyze what are its benefits, not only at the nutritional level, but also in terms of the impact that Spirulina has on our health.
Baicus, C. and Baicus, A. (2007). Spirulina did not ameliorate idiopathic chronic fatigue in four N-of-1 randomized controlled trials. Phytother. Res., 21 (6), 570-573.
Biesalski, HK. (2017). Polyphenols and inflammation: basic interactions. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 10 (6), 724-728.
Mani, UV., Desai, S. and Iyer, U. (2010). Studies on the long-term effect of spirulina supplementation on serum lipid profile and glycated proteins in NIDDM patients. Journal of Nutraceutical, 2 (3), 25-32.
Misbahuddin, M., Islam, AZ., Khandker, S. et al. (2016). Efficacy of spirulina extract plus zinc in patients of chronic arsenic poisoning: a randomized placebo-controlled study. Clin. Toxicol. (Phila), 44 (2), 135-141.
Watanabe, F., Takenaka, S., Kittaka-Katsura, H. et al. (2002). Characterization and bioavailability of vitamin B12-compounds from edible algae. Journal of Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo), 48 (5), 325-331.
Wu, L.C., Ho, J.A., Shieh, M.C. and Lu, I.W. (2015). Antioxidant and antiproliferative activities of Spirulina and Chlorella water extracts. Journal of Agric.Food Chem., 53 (10), 4207-4212.