Spirulina is a type of algae that grows in freshwater. It is harvested from lakes, ponds and rivers. It is found mainly in Africa but also in Asia parts of Asia, Mexico and the US.
Spirulina is called dihe in Chad and is harvested from Lake Chad by women in the Kanembu tribe. The Kanembu people believe that if men were to harvest spirulina, it would cause the lake to become barren. Spirulina’s use in that part of Africa goes back to the Kanem Empire in the 9th century.
In Mexico, records of spirulina’s use date from the 1700s when soldiers under Cortes’ command observed Aztec people harvesting it from Lake Texcoco. Spirulina was especially prized by the Aztec runners as it was reputed to give them energy. There is not much evidence of spirulina harvesting and use after the 1700s, probably because Spanish colonists were draining the lakes to develop urban areas.
In both cultures, spirulina was made into cakes and used as food.
The first facility for producing spirulina on a large scale began operation in Mexico in the early 1970s. The facility drew attention to spirulina from all over the world.
The name comes from the fact that the two spirulina species (Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima) were at one time classified in the Spirulina genus. The Arthrospira platensis species is the African variety; Arthrospira maxima is found mainly in Mexico and parts of California.
In Chad, spirulina provides income to Kanembu women; however, Lake Chad is shrinking due to water consumption for agricultural use as well as droughts. As a result, Chadian spirulina is in danger of extinction.
Spirulina flavor profile
Spirulina has a mild, savory herbal flavor that is sometimes likened to seaweed. It also has notes of sulfur similar to those from cabbage and kale.
Health benefits of spirulina
The whole point of using spirulina is the fact that it is loaded with nutrients. Some of the beneficial compounds that you will get from it include:
- Beta carotene: You can get a significant amount of beta carotene from a serving of spirulina. Beta carotene is an important antioxidant that your body converts to vitamin A.
- Protein: Spirulina is a complete protein, which makes it unusual among plants.
- Vitamins: Spirulina is an excellent source of B vitamins like riboflavin and thiamin and is also one of the few plant sources of vitamin B-12. Note that the B-12 in spirulina is usually not bioavailable to humans.
- Minerals: You can get more than twice the amount of iron you need each day from a single serving of spirulina.
There are many claims about the health benefits of spirulina, many of which are unproven. You may be able to treat or prevent the following conditions by adding it to your diet:
- Malnutrition: Spirulina’s high concentration of nutrients may make it an effective tool for combating malnutrition in poorer countries.
- Cancer: Studies have failed to show the benefits of taking antioxidant supplements to stave off cancer and other diseases associated with cell damage. Since spirulina is considered a food, it may actually be beneficial for this purpose.
Some varieties of spirulina algae produce microcystins that have the potential to be toxic. There are also concerns about heavy metal poisoning, which is known to affect spirulina sold in China.
The Kanembu people in Chad use spirulina to make a kind of sauce served with beans or animal proteins. They also mix it with rice and milk. In the United States, you will most often find spirulina in powder form or as tablets. The powder is the more versatile of the two as you can use it to make smoothies by combining it with fruits to sweeten it, or you can mix it into soups.