Microalgae: Do They Have a Place in Your Diet or Should They Be Left in the Pond?

by Julia Sementelli

If you have an Instagram account, chances are you’ve seen a slew of blue-green smoothies pop up on your feed. That vibrant color comes from adding some form of powdered algae to the smoothie. High in antioxidants, healthy fats, and protein, microalgae are the latest superfood to take over the nutrition world. The most popular types of algae include chlorella, spirulina, Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (AFA), Blue Majik…the list goes on. Microalgae are claimed to boost your energy, decrease stress, and reduce your risk for diabetes and heart disease. The question, of course, is whether these microalgae have any science-based health benefits beyond the nutrients they provide. I’ve asked consumers, health food companies, and nutrition experts to weigh in on whether algae should be added to your daily regimen or if they’re better off as fish food.

What are algae?  And why are we eating them?

Microalgae are very small photosynthetic plants rich in chlorophyll, which is where the green comes from (hello flashbacks to high school biology class). According to research, algae types differ in the nutrients they provide but all share one characteristic: they are high in antioxidants.  (See “Get To Know Your Blue-Green Algae” in the sidebar to learn more about individual microalgae). While some microalgae have been on the market for years, they have just recently risen to fame in the nutrition world as social media, blogs, and magazines advertise the purported benefits. One microalga in particular, spirulina, has received a significant amount of attention.  Companies have jumped on the microalgae bandwagon by adding spirulina to their products and even selling it in pure form. Abby Schulman, vegan and nutrition enthusiast, says that her fascination with superfood culture generally led to hearing about microalgae, in particular spirulina.  “It is sort of billed as this amazing nutrient-dense secret pill,” she states. “I was actually concerned about my iron levels and nutrition generally when I first started using it, since it was right when I transitioned to veganism. It felt like a good way of packing in some vitamins was to try the spirulina.” As a vegan who eats a diet rich in fresh produce, Abby states that adding spirulina to her diet is “ a more shelf stable way of getting in greens at the level I eat them than having to buy huge tubs of greens all the time.”

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Photo credit: Julia Sementelli

Microalgae’s time in the sun

 Blue-green microalgae have become a nutritional celebrity thanks to their prevalence in popular health food spots across the United States. Juice Generation, a national juice and smoothie chain, has jumped on the algae bandwagon by selling products that tout its supposed benefits. Products range from “Holy Water,” which contains Blue Majik, tulsi, coconut water, and pineapple, to concentrated shots of E3Live. These products claim to boost energy, enhance focus, and balance blood sugar. However, research to support these claims is lacking.

Infographic credit: Julia Sementelli

Infographic credit: Julia Sementelli

Health food businesses that use social media and blogs to advertise their products have also played a significant role in making microalgae famous. Sun Potion, an online medicinal plants and superfoods company, sells a slew of supplements, including chlorella. Sky Serge, Sun Potion spokesperson, is a big proponent of the power of chlorella. “Sun Potion chlorella is a single-celled green algae that is different than others, and is grown indoors and processed using an advanced sound frequency technology to crack the cell wall, making its many nutrients available for us to enjoy,” she explains. She says that she enjoys consuming chlorella in a glass of spring water each morning. “I have personally felt its detoxification benefits and have noticed healthier skin, better digestion and overall, a better wellbeing. Whether I am drinking it in my water in the morning or adding it to a salad dressing, I try and want to consume it every day!”

To further bolster Sun Potion’s belief in the power of its chlorella, founder, Scott Linde claims that chlorella “contains all eight essential amino acids, which could allow a person to live solely on chlorella and clean drinking water.” Not surprisingly, he too consumes chlorella daily. “Upon waking in the morning, I enjoy an eight ounce glass of water with a teaspoon of chlorella mixed in,” he says. “This simple action can punctuate the start of a great day. The body is slightly dehydrated after sleep, meaning the nutrients from the chlorella are absorbed almost immediately into the blood stream.” When asked about the nutrition benefits of chlorella, Linde claims that drinking chlorella offers much more than just antioxidants. “It helps to oxygenate the blood, waking up the brain; nourish the organs; aid in healthy elimination; and assist the body in moving toxins out of the system.” Not only have Serge and Linde experienced excellent results, but their customers have as well. “At Sun Potion, we have actually had customers tell us that they have forgotten to make their coffee in the morning because they were feeling so good from their morning chlorella ritual. This is perfect example of potent nutrition and best quality plant materials helping to saturate the body with positive influence, leading to looking, feeling, and operating at one’s best.”

The good, the bad, and the blue-green

Although many health claims about microalgae, such as increasing energy and regulating blood sugar, are not supported by science, research has shown some promising, more realistic benefits. A 2013 study showed that adding 3600 milligrams per day of chlorella to the diets of 38 chronic smokers for six weeks helped to improve their antioxidant status and reduce their risk of developing cancer. Another study found that daily intake of 5 grams of chlorella reduced cholesterol and triglyceride levels in patients with high cholesterol. Research has even found that supplementing chlorella can improve the symptoms of depression, when used in conjunction with antidepressant therapy. Still, many of these studies are the first of their kind and more evidence is needed regarding the long-term effects on cholesterol, cancer prevention, and depression, in addition to other conditions microalgae are claimed to help to alleviate.

While the supposed benefits of microalgae typically receive all of the attention, microalgae also have their own list of caveats. According to New York City-based registered dietitian, Willow Jarosh, “Some people can have allergic reactions to both spirulina and chlorella, so take that into consideration when trying. In addition, spirulina can accumulate heavy metals from contaminated waters.” She also states that microalgae can actually be too high in certain nutrients. “If you have high iron levels, have gone through menopause, or are a man, be aware of the high iron levels in microalgae—especially if you use them regularly.”

So what’s the verdict?

While there is certainly a lot of hype surrounding microalgae in the media, from companies that sell products containing them to preliminary supporting research, when it comes to recommending adding chlorella to your daily diet, experts are hesitant.

According to Jarosh, “There are some really major health claims, with very little scientific evidence/research to back up the claims, for both chlorella and spirulina.” As the co-owner of a nutrition consulting business, C&J Nutrition, she finds that her clients are frequently asking her about her thoughts on microalgae. “We’re always reluctant to recommend taking something when the long-term safety is unknown,” Jarosh says. “And since there’s not much research in humans to provide strong reasons to take these supplements (yet!), and the long-term research is also lacking, we’d recommend not using either on a regular basis.”

Microalgae are packed with antioxidants and those are always a good addition to your daily eats. Although the colors of microalgae appear supernatural and their effects often advertised as having the ability to give you superpowers, research is currently inadequate to say whether microalgae have more benefits than other antioxidant-rich foods. If you do decide to try it based on its antioxidant content, make sure that it does not replace other fruits and vegetables in your diet. Remember: Whole foods are always better than a powder.

Julia Sementelli is a second-year Nutrition Communication & Behavior Change student and registered dietitian.  Follow her on Instagram at @julia.the.rd.eats

 

 

 

 

 

 

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