When you see slimy, blue-green algae in a body of water, chances are you don’t think about grabbing a spoon. In fact, pond scum in its natural form is quite the opposite of appetizing—so it may seem strange that it’s become one of today’s top health food trends.
Also known as spirulina, the algae is composed of beneficial bacteria called cyanobacteria, which live on the surface of freshwater or saltwater lakes, ponds and oceans—it can even be found on moist rocks in the desert and in the Antarctic. It’s not new—many centuries before it broke onto the health scene as a trendy green, spirulina was a dietary staple of the Aztecs, who collected it from Lake Texcoco in central Mexico, and African natives, who harvested it from Lake Chad in west-central Africa.
Today, health food companies are adding this scummy staple to everything from coffee and iced tea to smoothies, energy bars and ice cream. You can also buy spirulina as a powder or pill from Amazon, Walmart, GNC and dozens of other supplement shops. With its brilliant blue hue, it is also approved by the FDA as a substitute for artificial food coloring.
Nutritional Makeup of Spirulina
A single tablespoon (7 grams) of dried spirulina powder contains the following nutrients:
- 4 grams of protein (60 to 70 percent of its dry weight)
- 2.0 milligrams iron (11%)
- 0.167 milligrams thiamin, B1, (11%)
- 0.257 milligrams riboflavin, B2, (15%)
- 0.897 milligrams niacin, (4%)
- 0.427 milligrams copper (21%)
The super powder is also a good source of magnesium, potassium and manganese. As an added bonus for those trying to lose weight, each tablespoon has only one gram of fat.
Potential Health Benefits of Spirulina
- Protein Boost: The high ratio of protein in spirulina could help to boost energy, fuel your muscles and keep you feeling fuller longer.
- Anti-Inflammatory Properties: Spirulina contains the powerful antioxidant phycocyanin, which helps to fight the chronic inflammation that can be a contributing factor in cancer and other diseases.
- Reduced Cancer Risk: The super powder has been linked to reduced cancer risk, especially oral cancer. In one controlled study, farmers in India who had existing precancerous mouth lesions consumed one gram of spirulina per day. After one year, 45 percent of the participants saw a complete disappearance of the lesions. (More studies are needed to confirm this effect in other populations.)
- Stronger Immunity: The blue-green algae has been credited with boosting the immune system, particularly in adults 50 and over, but again, more evidence is needed to confirm these claims.
- Alleviation of Allergies: Some research has suggested that spirulina’s anti-inflammatory effects could help to alleviate allergies. In one controlled study, participants who consumed two grams of the algae each day noticed a dramatic improvement in nasal allergy symptoms, including nasal discharge, sneezing, nasal congestion and itching.
- Improved Endurance: Other evidence indicates that pond scum could make you a better athlete—or at least enable you to maintain longer periods of exercise. One study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that participants who added spirulina to their daily diet for a three-week period experienced less muscle damage and were able to exercise longer than those who didn’t consume the algae.
- Reduced Blood Sugar: In a controlled study, people with Type 2 diabetes experienced a significant lowering of blood glucose levels after two months of supplementing their diet with spirulina.
- Lower “Bad" Cholesterol: Patients with high cholesterol levels who consumed just one gram of spirulina per day for 12 weeks saw a significant reduction in low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which is the type that can raise the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Who Should Avoid Spirulina?
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, it’s best to avoid spirulina, as its effects on the fetus are still unknown. People with autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, should also steer clear of the scum, as it could stimulate the immune system and intensify symptoms. If you have a genetic disorder called phenylketonuria, spirulina could worsen the condition. Hand points out that spirulina supplements could possibly be unsafe for children, as they can lead to the accumulation of heavy metals like lead and mercury.
Although spirulina is packed with nutrients and there is some encouraging evidence of potential benefits, more research is needed to confirm just how much it could boost your health.