Cyanobacteria – also known as blue-green algae – are superfoods that can be hard to avoid these days. Even if you’re not buying the powder, there’s a good chance you’re consuming small amounts of it in other products. It’s added to many high-end protein powders, organic multivitamins, and even used as an ingredient in a popular brand of cookies sold at health food stores in the Los Angeles area.
Spirulina is gluten free, vegan, and an allergy of it is unheard of. Given its widespread appeal and use, you assume it’s safe. Is spirulina good for you… or downright dangerous?
If it’s 100% pure, it is safe and offers many nutritional benefits. But there is something you probably won’t hear the supplement companies talking about – the plethora of scientific studies which raise an alarming question about a side effect which may be indirectly related, from other neurotoxin-producing cyanobacteria which may be found growing in the same water.
Difference between chlorella vs. spirulina
Found growing in every aquatic habitat throughout the world, most types of cyanobacteria are poisonous to humans. These two types are exceptions.
You will find chlorella vulgaris growing in fresh bodies of water such as swamps, ponds, and lakes. If you’ve ever had a fish tank turn green from UV light, that green was chlorella growing. All it needs is sunlight, carbon dioxide, and trace amounts of minerals to reproduce – multiplying itself four times every 24 hours. It was discovered well over a century ago by the Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck . The name comes from the Greek word “chloros” for green and the Latin word “ella” for small, which it certainly is – only consisting of one cell.
The difference with spirulina is that it’s a multicelled organism – growing up to 100x larger than the singled celled chlorella. The two species used for human consumption – Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima – are found primarily in fresh water, but occasionally in salt water environments too. It has been used as a nutritious food source since ancient times. The Aztecs were said to harvest it from the surface of Lake Texaco in Mexico. In the Central African country of Chad, for many generations the Kanembu women have collected the green substance from the surface of Lake Boudou Andja and produced bars of food with it… now that’s a real energy bar!
Despite all the research regarding it as a food, its genome structure has not been extensively studied . It is believed to be more closely related to the multi-cellular marine plants we call seaweed like kelp, wakame, and nori versus a single celled organism like chlorella.
While they’re both called blue-green algae, technically chlorella is solid green.
From a nutritional standpoint, unprocessed or raw chlorella is not as edible. This is because it has a cell wall of indigestible cellulose versus the easily digestible mucopolysaccharides which make up the walls of spirulina. It’s why open or cracked wall chlorella supplements are used; they’ve had their cell walls broken using milling or soundwave treatment. Why chlorella costs more than spirulina is because is because of its size, everything about its production and processing is much more complex. It’s why you often see it sold as a blend versus just by itself (as that is exponentially much more expensive).
With such impressive nutrition facts, it’s hard to imagine that these cyanobacteria may have bad side effects.
Before we get to the potential side effects, let’s go over some of the numerous medical and health benefits which have been suggested – but not proven – by scientific studies. Neither of these ingredients have been proven effective at treating, curing, or preventing any disease or medical condition.
1. Antioxidant content (both)
You will hear many supplement manufacturers as well as nutrition articles claim these cyanobacteria are high in antioxidants, but almost none provide you with any quantitative data to back that claim.
We have not came across a single verifiable source for chlorella’s ORAC value. This makes any claim about the antioxidant content in it flimsy, at best. Though we would predict its value would be similar to spirulina and that is one we do have a verified source for.
We have heard many numbers thrown around about the ORAC value or spirulina and they’re all over the map, sometimes differing by a magnitude of 10 for the exact same species! Obviously, many – or should we say most – are just flat out fabricated.
Excluding powdered drink mixes which include other ingredients, we are aware of only one legitimate and verifiable test for pure spirulina capsules and that provides an ORAC value of 5,970.
Is this high? Yes and no. On an equal weight basis, it’s about 27% more than conventional blueberries. But then again, blueberries are much cheaper than tablets and powder, plus you’re consuming a smaller amount per serving with the supplements. A reading of around 6,000 is not impressive relative to a few other foods that are up to 50x higher on theORAC chart. Regardless, spirulina is still high in antioxidants relative to most fruits and vegetables.
2. Cholesterol and lipid profiles (spirulina)
There have been a handful of studies which have suggested that spirulina supplementation might benefit blood lipid profiles, including HbA(1c) and possibly lowering LDL (or bad) cholesterol while increasing HDL (or good) cholesterol.
Published in 2001 by the Journal of Medicinal Food, a study evaluated 25 subjects who had type 2 diabetes. Some were randomly assigned powder from spirulina in the amount of 2 grams per day for two months. Glucose levels, HbA(1c), and lipid profiles were monitored. Supposedly a “significant reduction in the HbA(1c) level” was observed and triglyceride levels were reduced.
A study published in 2007 specifically looked at 36 people within a Mexican population and concluded there was a beneficial effect on triglycerides and LDL, but indirectly on HDL and total cholesterol. Reduction in systolic and diastolic blood pressure was also observed.
A 2008 study and a 2014 stud also reported favorable effects on lipid profiles.
3. Allergic rhinitis (spirulina)
Sneezing, coughing, and a drippy nose during pollen season is a condition many of us are all too familiar with.
A 2013 study published by ISRN Allergy claims that in Turkey, a fair percentage of the population uses herbal remedies for allergic rhinitis. Out of the 230 patients who were evaluated, reportedly 12.6% use stinging nettle, 6.1% use black elderberry, and 5.7% use spirulina. Of course, just because people use something does not mean it actually works.
However a 2008 study by Eur Arch Otorhinolaryngol claims that “spirulina is clinically effective on allergic rhinitis when compared with placebo.” Promising to hear, but that’s only one study.
4. Muscle fatigue and endurance (both)
Fitness benefits for spirulina have been studied more than for chlorella.
A study published in 2010 by Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (MSSE) involved 9 “moderately trained” males who participated in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, counterbalanced crossover study. Each received either 6 grams of spirulina powder per day or a placebo for 4 weeks. The conclusion was that the spirulina supplements “induced a significant increase in exercise performance, fat oxidation, and GSH concentration and attenuated the exercise-induced increase in lipid peroxidation.”
A 2006 study – albeit much less sophisticated – hinted at some similar benefits for athletes.
Many runners and bodybuilders claims chlorella benefits, yet whether or not that’s a placebo side effect is unknown. Until somewhat recently, reputable human studies had not been done. There is one that was published in 2014 by the Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition, which indeed presents strong evidence chlorella is good for you when it comes to fitness.
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