Greens from the sea
Discover two types of nutritious algae used as supplements: spirulina and chlorella.
Algae—not a word normally associated with foods known to entice the appetite. But did you know that this ubiquitous marine plant is full of healthy nutrients that provide a wealth of potential health benefits for us?
Whether you down the green stuff via supplement or enjoy its earthy flavour mixed as a powder into a glass of water or smoothie, the perks of these tiny organisms are outstanding.
Loaded with dietary protein, B vitamins, and iron, algae have provided a rich food source for many cultures. In fact, spirulina—a type of blue-green algae—has been used for thousands of years as a primary source of protein in both Mexico and Africa.
There are two different types of algae commonly used as supplements: spirulina and chlorella. These products have been commercially harvested since the ’70s; however, popularity has risen in recent years.
Invisible to the naked eye, these single-celled organisms contain bioavailable nutrients, meaning your body can readily absorb the vitamins and minerals from this whole food source. These foods from the sea are available in several formulations including as a pill, capsule, or powder, which can be mixed into a tasty smoothie. No two are quite alike, according to Oakville, Ontario-based nutritionist, Samantha Peris. “They are all incredibly nutrient dense, and they vary slightly from one to another.”
As with all supplements, it’s best to be sure before taking any form of algae. Check with your health care practitioner to ensure they won’t pose a problem with pre-existing conditions or interactions with any conventional medications.
This cyanobacteria is a type of freshwater green algae, the whole plant of which is dried and made into capsules and pills. Chlorella is known to contain a high concentration of chlorophyll. Although there have been many traditional uses for chlorella, scientific evidence has yet to confirm their effectiveness.
What it contains: protein, iron, zinc, vitamin A, and B vitamins
A type of blue-green algae, spirulina is rich in protein. Most spirulina is available in either pill or powder form, but it is also sold as flakes. Spirulina has been used traditionally for centuries. While test tube and animal studies have shown promise for spirulina in boosting the immune system and helping to protect against allergic reactions, more research is needed.
What it contains: protein, iron, magnesium, potassium, copper, manganese, B vitamins, vitamins E and K, omega-3 and -6 fatty acids
As with any food source, quality always trumps quantity. Sourcing algae takes some research or the help of a health care professional. Depending on the type, the growing environment varies; as a result, the nutrient components vary as well.
Dependent on the country or region in which it’s harvested, algae can vary greatly in purity. Calgary-based registered holistic nutritionist Stacey Deering suggests that consumers use caution when buying algae products, as some sources may introduce high toxicity levels. With microalgae, there is risk of contamination from heavy metals, radiation, pesticides, residue, or pharmaceutical drugs.
According to Deering, consumers should look for algae products from a reputable source that are non-GMO and processed using low-heat methods.
Adds Peris, “Look for companies that are honest about levels, are organic, and nurture a clean growing environment. Good companies have less to hide.”
As in other areas of life, the world of nutrition sees many trends, fads, and buzzwords that often cloud and complicate the topic for consumers. When it comes to the growing popularity of algae, however, Peris explains that because it’s an old source of nourishment for humans, it stands the test of time. “It’s something we evolved on and have used for a significant period of time.”