Algae - A new Source of Nutrients
~ September 2005 No.196 ~
Most of us have a varied diet - fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, cereal products. These are traditional foods and sources of nutrients that we all can identify with. Even when you look at most food pyramids you don't often see single cell organisms as something to include in your diet. However, when you look at what these algae can offer in terms of nutrients, there may be good reason to give them some thought.
The consumption of algae by humans may go back as far as the Aztec times in South America. There is good evidence that the first Spanish explorers observed the Aztecs harvesting blue-green algae from fresh water lakes.
The species of algae that has attracted the most attention is Spirulina. This tiny cork screw shaped single cell organism has been grown successfully in outdoor ponds in the more temperate regions of North and South America and Africa and indoors in such temperate countries as Great Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands. In commercial operations, Spirulina can be grown year round, harvested, cleaned, and dried.
The most common form of algae products on the market are supplements in capsules. Algae supplements contain protein, carbohydrates, carotenoids, amino acids, vitamins and trace minerals; they are reported to be highly digestible. A wise consumer would make comparisons between algae and other more traditional foods to ensure that some of the nutrient claims are as good as they are advertised.
A major environmental drawback to the use of algae is the cost associated with producing dried algae powder. All single cell organisms contain mostly water; it takes a lot of heat and, therefore, energy to produce algae powder. Also, since algae grow in water, any pollutants in the water can be incorporated into the algae.
The popular press has expounded on the attributes of consuming algae. Many of the claims about the antioxidant content, capacity to stimulate the immune system, antiviral properties, ability to lower blood sugar and blood cholesterol levels do not appear to be based on published scientific studies. However, there is evidence that spirulina may be useful in the prevention of mouth cancer.
An interesting point is how algae supplements are marketed. Although scientifically they are not plants, one of the target consumer groups is vegetarians. Being non-plant living organisms, algae contain many nutrients that are found in animal products or are in low concentrations in plant foods.
Evaluation of chemoprevention of oral cancer with spirulina fusiformis
J Nutr Cancer 1995,23:197-202