Spirulina: What You Need To Know About This incredible Algae

Spirulina has gained quite the popularity amongst foodies and health aficionados these days. It's making its way onto menus all over: smoothies, juices, and healthy snack foods are all featuring this lovely blue-green algae.

Just like most things though, not all spirulina is created equal. In fact, most spirulina is tainted with toxins & is heat treated leaving most its beneficial properties useless. While on one hand it's great to see healthy things become more widely known and utilized, it's also incredibly disheartening when the integrity of a product is compromised merely for money. 

It can get wildly confusing what is truly organic, what is actually produced right and what companies are true to their word. What companies are making something because they truly believe in the good of it, rather than just how much money they'll be making from it? Good questions and ones I ask often. 

As for spirulina, much of it as I mentioned is produced in such a way that renders it's nutritional value useless, while adding to it a myriad of unhealthy chemicals and toxins during processing. Who wants a dose of mercury with their spirulina? I shall pass.

In the past few months, my greens awareness has become even stronger; winter in the midwest presents a few challenges in finding super fresh, high-quality greens. Even though I still consume greens every single day, I simply feel the need for other sources of nutrient dense green energy. Thankfully spirulina is an easily accessible means to do just this. I haven't had pure spirulina powder for awhile. For the past two years or so, I was mostly getting it in one of my (former) favorite blends from E3 Live: E3 Renew Me. However, in 2016 I started to really hone in on doing my own research on all health claims I was interested in, not just basing my opinions on what others were claiming or what articles appeared on any news feed. 

Without further ado, here is the course of trajectory for this post. Apologies now for a lot of words and information. But I believe it's necessary to educate ourselves on what we put into our bodies!

In this post you will find: 

  1. the definition of spirulina

  2. it's nutritional benefits

  3. methods of spirulina production

  4. and last but not least, a guideline of questions to ask when sourcing spirulina as well as my suggested best companies to purchase from.

Ready? Let's go...!

Spirulina defined 

What is spirulina? Spirulina is multi-celled organism whose name is derived from the Latin word, spiralis, for helix or spiral, due to it's spring-like physical characteristics. Spirulina's scientific name is Arthrospira plantensis and belongs to the cyanobacteria {blue-green algae} family. The cyanobacteria family are all photosynthetic (meaning they make their own food via sunlight) & live in water. As mentioned above, they are unicellular but live in colonies large enough for the human eye to see. Cyanobacteria are estimated to be 3.6 billion years old and are the oldest and one of the most important groups of bacteria on earth! Spirulina is mass cultured in shallow, open outdoor ponds (see picture below) and requires an immense amount of sunlight for all that photosynthesis to occur. 

Spirulina ponds at Nutrex-Hawaii's processing facility in Kailuea-Kona, Hawaii.

Spirulina ponds at Nutrex-Hawaii's processing facility in Kailuea-Kona, Hawaii.

Benefits of Spirulina

Spirulina is a potent source of complete protein. This single-celled organism is comprised of 60-71% (dry weight) protein compared to beef, which is only 22% protein. Spirulina produces 20x more protein per acre than common protein rich fuel sources such as beef! Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and there are twenty all together, nine essential, meaning our body cannot synthesize them on its own and thus requires them from food, and eleven non-essential that our bodies can synthesize. All nine essential amino acids are present in spirulina, as are nine of the eleven non-essential amino acids.  

Spirulina is also a great source of

  • vitamins A (in the form of beta-carotene & has more than carrots!), E & K

  • minerals including calcium, phosphorus, iron, mangenese, magnesium and zinc.

  • carotenoids (beta-carotene being part of this)

  • chlorophyll

  • healthy fatty acids such as gamma-linolenic acid {GLA}

  • Superoxide Dismutase (SOD), an enzyme that also has antioxidant & anti-inflammatory properties. SOD neutralizes free radicals (the guys that cause lots of damage) that cause so much damage in the body

Carotenoids are powerful antioxidants that are most widely known for their contributions to eye health... so go blend some spirulina with carrot juice & you've got yourself a carotenoid haven! One of my favorite features of spirulina and other algae is simply the chlorophyll. Chlorophyll helps in restoring and replenishing red blood cells, is full of live enzymes that help cleanse the blood & helps the blood deliver more oxygen throughout your body! Chlorophyll = LIFE! 

Gamma-linolenic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid that is also found in breast milk and the oils of evening primrose, borage, and black currant seed. {Omega-6s are actually abundant in the standard American diet due to all the highly processed vegetable oils in processed foods, making our bodies out of "omega balance"}. However, omega fatty acids (including omega-3s) are vital to brain functionality, they stimulate skin & hair growth, maintain bone health, regulate metabolism & maintain a healthy reproductive system. Despite the average American abundance of omega-6, it is still crucial to include these in our diet but from healthy sources

Some other noteworthy high-fives of Spirulina include:

  • it's ability to normalize cholesterol levels and balance blood pressure

  • detoxes, balances & boosts immunity

  • detoxes, balances & supports healthy gut flora and digestion

  • has been linked to reducing allergy symptoms

  • may reduce the risks of both stroke & cancer

  • aids in the elimination of toxins {including arsenic!!}

  • has small amounts of B12, in the form of methylcobalamin. This amount is trivial however, and should not be relied upon for your sole source of B12 for optimal health!

How is spirulina produced & why should i be concerned?

Can you see why its nutritional & cleansing benefits make it such an incredible food? Hopefully you are convinced :) So now let's better understand its production methods and why these are serious factors as to which brand you choose. 

If there is one take away from this post, remember that spirulina absorbs toxins from it's environment. Therefore, spirulina grown in a pristine setting is so critical! 

Who desires their spirulina to come with harmful toxins? Or a product that's been heat treated, rendering it's beneficial qualities useless. Surely not myself & I reckon you wouldn't either! Sourcing from a reputable company is so important if you want to ensure you are truly benefiting from the spirulina & not throwing your money down the drain.

Spirulina is a naturally occurring algae found in freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers where there is an abundance of sunlight. However, the spirulina we purchase is cultivated, not wildly harvested, and is grown in large, fresh water ponds. In order for spirulina to grow, it needs LOTS OF SUNLIGHT for photosynthesis. Spirulina's fuel source is primarily sunlight but also requires soluble nitrogen and phosphorus, to produce a nutrient-dense food. There is a closely monitored water filtration process that the algae must undergo as well - most companies pull this water from the oceans. The drying process to make it shelf-stable is another crucial part of production & essentially makes it or breaks it.

Some of the environmental issues that risk contaminating your spirulina are radiation & heavy metals including lead, mercury & arsenic.

Spirulina sourced from Japan is where radiation is of most concern (lingering from Fukushima). Just stay clear of Japan produced spirulina. Natural lakes & China are where you risk heavy metal contamination; natural lakes due to a lack of growing control, having heavy metals more readily present. 

Commercially produced spirulina is also often laced with toxins from production including {chilean nitrate*}, BMAA, microcystin, herbicides, pesticides, preservatives, and stabilizers.

*I have Chilean nitrate asterisked above because it's tricky to quantify it as either good or bad; it's a bit of both. Chilean nitrate is not directly toxic to us. In my research, it seems to be that consuming spirulina grown with it, you are not ingesting nitrates in the way we associate them with cured meats and the likes. 

Chilean Nitrate is a mined source of highly soluble nitrogen that is banned in organic agriculture {agriculture = land based, aquaculture = water based, aka spirulina}. Chile is, and has been, the world's leading producer of nitrate; 69% of this heavily used substance comes from the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Unfortunately the process of mining on such a large scale causes significant environmental & biological destruction due to soil erosion (both in the desert & Andes), polluted land & water with both extraction chemicals as well as nitrogen run-off. Water systems containing high levels of nitrogen cause birth defects and in some cases death from the sheer level of toxicity. Unnaturally high levels of nitrogen in our soils leads to many ecological imbalances. Much of the nitrogen leeches into our waterways, which in turn causes an excess of algae growth (aka algae blooms) that rob sea creatures of their vital oxygen, killing so.much.sea.life. The difference with nitrogen being used in aquaculture is the ponds are lined, therefore an abundance of nitrates are NOT leeching into soils or waterways.. one of the positives. 

Spirulina producers rely on added nitrates because the commercially grown strain of spirulina does not contain a certain component necessary for nitrogen fixation. Therefore, they must add a soluble nitrogen to the media in which spirulina is grown (water) in order for us to reap all its beneficial properties. 

Chilean nitrate isn't winning many points in the sustainability category, yet nitrogen's presence in production is important. So, a logical solution would be to just find a new, sustainable source of nitrogen, right? Certified organic spirulina is not allowed to use Chilean nitrate solely because it is not allowed in agriculture, to prevent all the environmental discord mentioned just above. However, they must use nitrogen rich alternatives to supplement...

Alternatives to Chilean nitrate are not the most ideal, either, unfortunately. Spirulina producers who are either certified organic or choose to forgo the Chilean nitrate, primarily rely on animal fertilizers for the added boost in nutrients. Using animal fertilizers is not a great alternative in this particular situation due to the following: (note: I FULLY support and believe in animal based fertilizer in agricultural farming practices).

  1. Animal fertilizers used in aquaculture increase the risk of bacteria & pathogen contamination

  2. Animal fertilizers may contain GMOs... if the animal is raised on GMO grains/grasses... it's bound to be in their poop!

  3. May contaminate spirulina with heavy metals

  4. Produce an inferior product at a higher cost

Both companies who I believe produce the highest-quality spirulina have foregone the organic label, solely to continue their use of Chilean nitrate. Both companies believe it produces higher quality spirulina & as noted earlier, there is no contamination of water/land with this process when done properly. I encourage you to formulate your own perspective on this issue; it leaves me torn yet I also believe it's just as important to keep things within reason and remember nothing is perfect. Here is where I apply the adage "for every action, there is a reaction", while trying to keep those reactions as minimal and destructive as possible.

BMAA is a non-proteinogenic amino acid produced by cyanobacteria that is linked to neurological disorders. This is only present in certain spirulinas or chlorella products, particularly those that are not certified organic & are wild harvested from a lake. BMAA will not be of concern when spirulina is produced correctly & undergoes a proper drying process. 

Microcystin is a toxin found in cyanobacteria that is wild-harvested from natural lakes; a toxin particularly damaging to the liver and brain. Avoid this potential contaminant by purchasing quality cultured spirulina, grown in regulated ponds. I think it comes down to that you would need to be scooping algae from a lake to ingest this stuff. So let's just agree to leave that algae in the lake, where we find it & only consume algae that's on the market. 

Another important note to mention!...

A couple years ago, I wrote a blog post (and shared on other platforms) about my love for E3 Live, a blue-green algae (AFA strain) coming from Upper Klamath Lake. Upon all my recent research however, I have discovered that due to being wild-harvested from Klamath Lake, a lake KNOWN to have microcystin, and in an area with a great deal of agricultural runoff, I now consider E3 Live consumption questionable. There are too many negative reports from consumers of this products that has sealed the deal for me personally.  

Herbicides, pesticides, and heavy metals (same as those mentioned above). Companies based out of Japan and China are using waters contaminated with heavy metals (& radiation!)... so please pass on this! Proper filtration will come from thousands of miles deep in the ocean, where waters are pristine. No company should be using any chemicals in their processing either, so stick with organic. 

Preservatives & stabilizers... are more of an after thought. Like so many things on the market, these are added to preserve shelf-life, cut costs of production, etc. They may or may not be on the label. 

The Best Spirulina Producers 

This all leads us to asking, what spirulina reigns as the highest quality? Aside from my top two recommendations, below are some rules of thumb I would follow when choosing your spirulina source (if not using the two companies I share): 

  1. Can you find more information on the company? If you can't trace the product, do not buy it. There should be full disclosure on a website, or by phone call, as to where and how it's grown, as well as test results.

  2. Spirulina should not be cheap (i.e. you should not be spending less than $20). There is likely a reason for something being so low in price. High-quality food may be a bit more money but remember how vitally important this is. If you aren't purchasing high-quality, TRUE spirulina, than you might as well be consuming cardboard.

  3. High quality spirulina is a vibrant, deep green without any speckles of white or black. Anything non-uniform or speckled (fillers) signifies lower quality.

  4. Dry spirulina is a fine powder, reminiscent of flour. If it's wet or sticky, pass!

  5. Spirulina will smell & taste like the sea. If it doesn't, yet another sign it's been compromised with sweeteners or unnatural additives.

With all my research, there are only two, U.S. based companies I recommend at this point. However, that doesn't mean there aren't other good ones out there. 

Nutrex Hawaii - Pure Hawaiian Spirulina

This the brand I regularly use & love. Nutrex-Hawaii is affordable, widely available and their practices are sustainable, clean & legit. This company has been cultivating their raw Hawaiian spirulina since 1985 in Kona, Hawaii... a coast that receives a LOT of sun. Perfect for all that photosynthesis. Nutrex uses a patented Ocean Chill Drying method that completely eliminates the oxidation of spirulina's live enzymes and antioxidants. I can honestly say this company turned me on to spirulina in 2014, after thinking for years prior it was completely unpalatable. 

Nutrex-Hawaii Spirulina

Nutrex-Hawaii Spirulina

New Phoenix Rising, BioLumina Spirulina

New Phoenix takes an already high-vibe food next level by Quantum infusing their spirulina with healing energy, providing a win-win product. I personally have yet to try this line of spirulina but am in the prospects of ordering some. If you have the time, I recommend perusing their website, especially if you're one for discussing vibrations, energy & all that jazz. Aside from my own research, I can attest to this product through testimonials of trustworthy & knowledge friends in the health food world. 

New Phoenix Rising, BioLumina Spirulina

New Phoenix Rising, BioLumina Spirulina

Again, sorry for so many words with not many pictures. But more importantly, I hope you gained some insight on spirulina & are now inspired to source with more discernment.