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What is Spirulina:

How spirulina is classified?

Spirulina belongs to the class of cyanobacteria, which is commonly classified as a simple form of algae. At the same time it can be classified as bacteria, being also composed of just one single cell. It loves the warm and alkaline water and usually thrives in fresh and high PH lakes or ponds. The name of spirulina inevitably suggests of its spiral shape, and derives from Latin 'spiru' meaning a weeny spiral. The scientific name of spirulina is Arthrospira.

Species of spirulina

There are, of course, many different species of spirulina - about 60 being documented as of 2012 and counting. All of them contain three pigments that respond for their color: chlorophyll, phycocyanin, betacarotene that give it a green, blue and orange tints respectively. Though let us note, when these colors are densely combined together, they make up into an opaque, mossy shade, and there is not much we can do about it... This mass, however, serves as a source of nutrients for animals, and may be responsible for pigmentation. Some of the species also contain a fluorescent pink pigment (phycoythrin), that gives a graceful look to flamingos, for instance.

We must say that not all species of spirulina are eadible, just like with most of algae. As of now, three species are considered valuable and recommended for consumption: Maxima, Pacifica and Platensis. The occurance of Maxima prevails in Central America, Mexico and Eastern African lakes, and had once been a food source for Aztecs, hence its second name is Azteca. Pacifica is confined to Hawaiian Islands, and may be naturally found on the sea shores in the region, though now it is massively cultivated on the open-air farms that pump the water directly from the ocean. Platensis mainly occurs in Asia, Kenya and South America, and it is also the most studied species.

History of spirulina

Cyanobacteria - the class of spirulina - are commonly thought to be the precursors of all the living, and had risen about 3 billions of years ago. Not only they have been serving as a source of food for living organisms, but have also been the major producers of oxygen along with other algae. And yet, the history haven't left us any remarkable trace about it's first consumption by human. We may assume that it wasn't easy to distinguish among other algae, and some of its habitat places until now maintain tribal way-life and aren't much exposed to the world.

The earliest reference to it was made in 16th century in Mexico. When Spanish conquestadors stopped by one of the local lakes, they were offered an Aztec dish they have never seen before, a greenish cake made of dried algae... Quite a popular snack back there, refererred by the natives as a 'poop of a stone', an excellent name for delicacy! 400 years later, in 1940 a simmilar reference came from Africa, another algae cakes report, though harvested at Lake Chad. Later on, in 1960s, it has drawed the botanists' attension and the parralels have been drawn. Our special alga has been named 'Spirulina', and has been studied since then for its nutritional qualities.

Traditional harvesting and use versus modern production

Drying of spirulina for cakes in Africa, 2004
Photo: Marzio Marzot

Traditionally, people have been harvesting spirulina just by scooping the algae from the surface of lakes, and then leaving the mass under the sun to dry. They would actually stand up in the water as they harvest, treading in the shallow waters. This method still works up to now, though it remains the cheapest. We can see that the color is only pale and light green, suggesting only a low concentration of spirulina. On the other hand, these raw algae can be indeed considered a viand, for one can consume it in bigger amounts, and use it as a food just like other plants.

With advance of technology, people learned to cultivate spirulina in a more efficient way though, by inventing farms and building ponds. The farms allow to have more control for the content and enviromental factors such as watering and temperature, and protecting from pollution as well. By sustaining the environment, one can enhance the quality of production and its overall value. Smaller ponds are usually easier to sustain and control, often they are covered under a greenhouse, that helps to keep it warm enough, at the same time protecting it from the rain and pollution. The bigger farms can produce more content of course, but not necessarily as vigorous and nutritious.

That may explain why the price varies so greatly among the producers. The quality spirulina, to be used as a food supplement should have a solid, really dark green color, and should quickly absorb and dissolve into water. If it is indeed concentrated and vigorous, you will notice the effect soon after consumption. The concentrated supplement should not be confused for the raw algae taken from lakes, and should be consumed moderately. Though, as spirulina remains a potent supplement, there are also many dishonest marketers that repack the cheapest algae obtained directly from lakes and resell as supplement, that in reality has little to no value.

Nutritional Value

Spirulina has an impressive nutrition factor, consisting mainly of protein that account for 50 to 70% of its mass, it also embodies a number of essential minerals as well as vitamins. Interestingly the amount of protein varies upon time of the day of harvest, and the richest content occurs when harvested early in the morning. The proteins of spirulina consist of 18 different amino acids and provide a complete set that is required by our bodies.

7% mass of spirulina accounts for fatty acids, mainly ω−6, about 15-25% are the easily digestable carbs, and the rest makes up for its moisture. The vitamin content is as follows: Pro-Vitamin A (beta-carotene), Vitamin E (tocopherols), and the water soluble B1, B2, B6, B12, Niacine, Folate, Biotin and Vitamin C. Finally spirulina provides several minerals, particularly being rich in Iron and Potassium.

Consumption, taste and experience

I shall say a little more about consumtion and taste, for these algae surely look a little bit scary at first sight. The taste greatly depends on producer and the species of spirulina itself, usually the Platensis has a smoother taste than the others, especially when grown in a clearn, fresh water. When the sea water is involved though, it may kind of smell fishy, and there are many people who exaggerate on it, and keep inventing some peculiar recipes to mask its taste. May be it's just me who is tolerant... or may be I'm just lucky with the brand, but if I were to describe it, I'd rather compare it to a caramel.

What could one expect when taking spirulina? Well, the best answer would be health, in a long term. Though, some of the other effects assert themselves straight away after consumption. First, it does make you a little bit less hungry and increases your stregth. Some people also report allevated mood during the first hours after consumption, which may be the result of increased energy. And yet it cannot be compared to a coffee, with its restlessness and other side effects. It does not affect your sleeping either. And when taking regularly it imporves your health, theby making you feel different.

- written by Sarge D2