Introduction to Spirulina
Spirulina is a well-known consumable cyanobacteria which is found throughout the warm waters of the world. It’s named from the microscopic spiral-shape that can be uniquely identified only to Spirulina. Spirulina has highest protein content of any natural food, up to two-thirds, while very low in fat. Other nutritional benefits provided by this alga include chlorophyll, phycocyanin, phycoerthryin, iron, minerals, essential fatty acids, B-vitamins and other phytonutrients. Research on spirulina indicates potential properties such as antioxidant and antiviral properties and the ability to lower blood lipid levels.
Fig.1 Fresh Spirulina Fig.2 Dried Powdered Spirulina
History and Cultivation of Spirulina
Growing spirulina for food dates back to the era of the Aztecs. Spirulina platensis has been cultivated in many countries. Open ponds for Spirulina production can be found in California, China, Taiwan, and India. This biomass is cultivated for usage in different industries. (6) Over 10% of the Spirulina production is from China, which harvests over 350 tons annually. In the U.S., Spirulina cultivation is largely from Earthrise’s open ponds in California. The production capacity harvests over 450 tons annually.(6)
There are several industries that use spirulina and its extracts. Spirulina biomass is used as a food supplement and in animal feed industry. More than 50% of the Spirulina produced is used in animal feeds. (6)
Spirulina’s pigments are valued in the cosmetic industry and the food industry.(6) Phycocyanin and phycoerthryin are two natural pigments extracted from spirulina.(5) Phycocyanin is a blue-colored pigment and phycoerthyrin is a red-colored pigment. They are often extracted from fresh biomass and used as edible coloring.(5) The estimated value for phycocyanin is between $5 to $15 per mg. (6)
Fig.3 Chemical compound of Phycocyanin
Analytical view of spirulina consists of 55- 70% protein, 15 -25% carbohydrates, 18 % fatty acids. Spirulina also offers vitamins, minerals, and pigments (1). Spirulina is a good source for vitamin K and GLA.(5) Several of the B vitamins such as B1, B2, B3 are available, in varying amounts, depending on the specific species. (2) Beta-carotene, calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, selenium, zinc are also available from Spirulina. (5) Spirulina offers more beta-carotene than carrots. The rich iodine content of spirulina has been questioned for the safety of human consumption on a regular basis. The iodine contained in Spirulina has been found to be safe for humans taking up to 30g per day. (2) Spirulina also offers iron in an easily digestible and bioavailable form.(3)
Spirulina is a potent antioxidant and has been evaluated in many health conditions including inflammatory conditions, vascular health, cancers, etc. (1) The ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) value for spirulina has been estimated around 13,000 while blueberry pigment is about 2,600 (3).The antioxidant activity of Spirulina is higher than chlorella.(5) A part of Spirulina’s antioxidant capacity can be contributed to the variety of mixed carotenoids that it contains. Zeaxanthin, astaxanthin, crytoxanthin are a few of the xanthophylls contained within spirulina. (3) Spirulina is one of the top food sources of beta carotene from provitamin A. (2) All of the carotenoids work together to boost the antioxidant function in the human body. (3)
Spirulina is an amazing nutrient-dense renewable resource. This microalgae is a valuable resource for many different industries.
1. S. K. Ali and A. M. Saleh, “Spirulina—An Overview,” International Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Vol. 4, No 3, 2012, pp. 9-15
2. SOTIROUDIS T, SOTIROUDIS G. Health aspects of Spirulina (Arthrospira) microalga food supplement. Journal Of The Serbian Chemical Society [serial online]. March 2013;78(3):395-405. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed August 5, 2013
3. Henrikson, Robert. (2010) Spirulina – World Food: How this micro algae can transform your health and our planet. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
4. R. Rodríguez-Sánchez, R. Ortiz-Butrón, V. Blas-Valdivia, A. Hernández-García, E. Cano-Europa Phycobiliproteins or C-phycocyanin of Arthrospira (Spirulina) maxima protect against HgCl2-caused oxidative stress and renal damage. Food Chemistry, Volume 135, Issue 4, 15 December 2012, Pages 2359-2365
5. Venugopal, V. 1., & ebrary, I. (2009). Marine products for healthcare: Functional and bioactive nutraceutical compounds from the ocean. Boca Raton: CRC Press/Taylor & Francis.
6. Posten, C., Walter, C., & ebrary, I. (2012). Microalgal biotechnology: Integration and economy. Berlin ; Boston: Walter de Gruyter.