When fitness blogger Heather Gannoe heard about a new supplement that allegedly contained a “treasure trove” of energy, she was intrigued. No, it wasn’t coffee, goji berries or guarana. It was spirulina — a blue-green microalgae. Touted as a source of protein, B vitamins and iron, this lesser-known superfood is rumored do everything from boost your immunity levels to reduce your anxiety.
After doing some research, Gannoe, an exercise physiologist, decided to give spirulina a try. She’d been a vegetarian for about two and a half years — and was always searching for new plant-based ways to get all the protein and vitamins she needs. “But those weren’t the initial reasons I started taking the algae,” she says. “I take algae primarily for the energy boost.”
Mircoalgae can be consumed in a variety of ways. “You can take it in pill form or add the powder to smoothies or juices,” says Alissa Rumsey, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – though she cautions that it will turn your food green. As it gains popularity, algae is also cropping up in some common supermarket foods, too. The company Daily Greens recently came out with a hemp milk infused with blue-green algae, which will be sold at Whole Foods Market soon.
Gannoe now takes three spirulina capsules a day, the amount recommended by her brand of supplement. She describes experiencing a sustained energy that lasts throughout the day, unlike the quick jolt you’d get from an energy drink. Intrigued? Find out the pros — and cons — of adding this new sea green to your supplement routine.
Spirulina Benefits 101: The New Way to Get Your Green On?
Spirulina is just one kind of microalgae, the tiny aquatic cousin to seaweed and kelp. It’s actually not a plant at all but a member of the bacteria kingdom that’s naturally found in salt water and bodies of fresh water. It’s a diet mainstay for many varieties of fish, making it a key part of the food chain.
Despite its growing buzz in the supplements world, the blue-green microalgae isn’t a new discovery. It’s been called one of the oldest and most potent superfoods. “It’s high in protein, B vitamins, beta carotene [and] vitamin E as well as iron, copper and selenium,” says Rumsey. “It also contains gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an omega-6 fatty acid.”
According to Lori Zanini, RD and national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, many of those taking spirulina are vegan or vegetarian. “The reason is because it’s such a concentrated source of protein, B vitamins — especially B12 — and iron,” she says. B12 is normally found exclusively in animal protein — which is why non-meat eaters might be drawn to this algae. Other forms of microalgae may also be a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, a nutrient commonly found in fatty fish.
“People take it for everything from weight loss to PMS to ADHD.”
Some believe that spirulina’s benefits extend beyond the nutritional. “People take it for everything from weight loss to PMS to ADHD,” says Zanini. There has been some promising research, which indicates that spirulina may help with nasal allergies. In recent years, Zanini says that there has been increasing interest in spirulina as an energy booster, too.
Rumsey says that this may be attributed to spirulina’s B vitamins. “B vitamins are a catalyst for energy reaction in your body,” she says. But she’s doubtful as to how much the supplement actually makes a difference, when it comes to how alert you feel.
Miracle Food or Just Hype?
While the hype surrounding spirulina is growing, this superfood might not be quite the miracle powder it’s cracked up to be. “By [dry] weight, spirulina is 60 to 70 percent protein, which is a lot,” says Rumsey. “[But] in terms of the amount that you’re ingesting from a supplement, it’s only about two grams of protein.” Rumsey notes that you’d have to ingest a lot of spirulina to really add a significant amount of protein to your diet. “Other sources of protein, like nuts, legumes and whole grains, have more protein in smaller quantities of food — and for less money,” she says. “Spirulina can be expensive.”
Furthermore, though spirulina may appear to be an excellent non-animal source of vitamin B12, vegans and vegetarians should be aware that it may not be supplying them with as much of the nutrient as they believe. “The B12 in algae isn’t really absorbable by the body,” says Rumsey. If you don’t eat meat, both Rumsey and Zanini advise that you turn to other sources of B vitamins for dietary protein and iron, such as beans, lentils, nutritional yeast and eggs or dairy.
Overall, experts believe that more scientific evidence is needed to determine the greater health benefits of spirulina. Children, and those who are immunodeficient, pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid taking spirulina, according to Zanini. And she advises users to always, “Look at the quality and origin of the supplement.”
That being said if you’re already hooked on the green supplement, it’s okay. “There really isn’t much risk with this. It’s just a cost-benefit analysis,” says Rumsey. “Spirulina does have a lot of nutrients, but it isn’t cheap and you can obtain protein and nutrients a lot easier and for less money from other sources,” she says.