By: Tini Thangjam
Algae are a large and diverse group of photosynthetic aquatic organisms. They are now gaining the very much needed attention worldwide. They are what I would like to call the ‘sprouts of nutrient dense food’; indicating their venture into the dome of nutrient dense foods. Nutrient dense is a term often used for those foods that contain a lot of nutrients in a concentrated form which have immune lifting properties. Seaweed and chlorella are algae that are quite popular nowadays. However, today we will be digging the ocean floor about an Algae which has become the hot topic in recent years: spirulina.
Spirulina is a filamentous, spiral-shaped and photosynthetic blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) known for their high nutrient content. Its chemical composition includes proteins (55%-70%), carbohydrates (15%-25%), essential fatty acids (18%), vitamins, minerals and pigments like carotenes, chlorophyll a and phycocyanin. As it is rich in protein it is widely sourced after. Their protein content is clearly on another level in comparison to other protein rich foods. Another significant component are the vitamins. They are rich in Vitamin B12 and due to this are helpful in the treatment of pernicious anaemia. Moreover, minerals like iron, manganese and magnesium are some main constituents of minerals present in spirulina. We all know, these macro and micro nutrients are essential for a healthy body. What’s more interesting are the functions of pigments and how they affect our health.
They contain beta-carotenes which converts into vitamin A in our bodies. This reduces the body’s oxidative stress as it acts as an antioxidant which helps promote proper lung function and maintain healthy skin and eyes. Other than this, phycocyanin also acts as an antioxidant. It contains a compound attached to it known as phycocyanobilin which inhibits an enzyme responsible for pathological oxidative stress. With this property, it has a great potential to prevent vascular diseases, cancer, complications of diabetes and a range of neurodegenerative, fibrotic or inflammatory disorder. Another potential source of anti-cancer property of spirulina can be due to the unique polysaccharides that enhances the cell nucleus enzyme activity and DNA repair synthesis. The extracts of spirulina have anti-mutagenic and anti-cancer effect that can prevent development and growth of tumours as well as inhibit proliferation of cancer cell. Its compounds have inhibitory activity against a wide range of viruses viz. HIV-1, HSV-1, HSV-2, measles, influenza type A, etc. Thus, it exhibits anti-viral properties too.
The history of spirulina is quite sparse over centuries. Evidences have been found about its use as food for humans however its accounts are few. It is found that the Aztecs and Mesoamericans used them as a food source until the 16th century. The Aztecs called them ‘tecuitlatl’, they were harvested from the lake Texcoco in Mexico and sold them as cakes. After the 16th century their account of being used was not traceable. In the year 1940, a Belgian psychologist mentioned it as a cake called dihe consumed by the Kanembu Tribe, whose contents were harvested from the lake Chad in Africa. During 1964 and 1965, a botanist Jean Leonard studied dihe and confirmed that it was made up of spirulina. His detailed study and analysis of a bloom of algae laid the foundation on the basis of which a spark was ignited for large scale production of spirulina in the 1970s by Sosa Texcoco. Now in this contemporary world, spirulina are no more consumed as cakes. They are ground into powders or made into pills for our consumption. They are taken as dietary supplements and I do suggest a quick check with your doctors before taking it. Its gain in popularity was boosted by NASA successfully using spirulina as a dietary supplement for astronauts in space missions. In addition, they are repeatedly proven to benefit our health in several studies performed. Moreover, there is no question about toxicity as it is completely harmless. Though contaminations can pose a problem if it is grown in polluted water filled with heavy metals. Adulterations may occur during its production due to improper practices. One should be careful while choosing their supplements. One way to select good spirulina would be to buy it from a certified company or seek help from research institutions. Other than this, spirulina are quite sensitive during processing and may suffer nutrient losses if not properly handled and stored. Some people may be allergic to it, that’s why I suggested a talk with the doctor to clear out any suspicions about consuming spirulina. Moreover, people with autoimmune diseases are exempt from taking it.
Now it’s the chance for the readers to explore spirulina in their own way. It certainly possesses lots of marvels. Further research and awareness will definitely unveil more mysteries and hopefully contribute to our diets in the near future. So don’t miss out on the wonders of spirulina and hop on to the trend of utilizing it and extracting its benefits. And who knows it may help you fight and prevent the unknowns of illness.
(The writer has finished her Bachelors in Food Technology from College of Food Technology, CAU, Lamphel, Manipur. The writer can be reached at [email protected])
Spirulina: Unveiling the Marvelsof Algae
By: Tini Thangjam