Many people ask “what is Spirulina?” In the simplest terms, Spirulina is a blue-green algae that is high in nutrients and used as a food source since ancient times. Spirulina is a whole product of biological origin. It consists of the dried biomass of the cyanobacterium Arthrospira. Arthrospira are filamentous microscopic blue-green algae or cyanobacteria that occur abundantly in an almost uni-algal form in highly alkaline lakes with high pH. The high pH and alkalinity prevent other algae from growing and it is therefore grown outdoors virtually free of contamination by other algae.
The true taxonomic name of Spirulina has been revised recently. The edible forms of Spirulina are now called Arthrospira. The common species under commercial cultivation are Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima. The name Spirulina is now retained to describe the product and not the algae.
What Spirulina Is Used For?
Spirulina is sold commercially as food, dietary supplement, and nutritional supplement and natural health product. Some of its components are also used as food coloring in Japan.
Spirulina Nutritional Benefits
A Rich Source of Nutrients
Spirulina contains the highest concentration of protein for any plant, herb or animal on a gram per gram basis. The amino acid content of its protein is very close to the WHO standard. Since Spirulina does not have a thick cell wall this protein is readily available.*
Spirulina also contains some essential vitamins like Vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene), Vitamin B12.* It is also a very rare source of GLA (Gamma Linolenic Acid), an essential fatty acid. Moreover Spirulina is a good source of bio-available iron.*
In addition to the above Spirulina also contains phytonutrients like phycocycanin and polysaccharides that have some potential health benefits.*
There are many scientific studies that show that Spirulina has potential benefits in the areas of immunomodulation, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory protection, cardiovascular health, cellular protection, detoxification from heavy metals and drugs and probiotic effects. The bulk of the scientific evidence supports the immunomodulation and antioxidant effects and most of the other benefits are also indirectly related to these two effects.*
Several animal and human studies have shown that Spirulina supports immune function. In particular, it has been shown to promotes innate (inborn) immunity, the body’s first line of defense. In this regard it promotes macrophage function, T-cell proliferation and Natural Killer Cell activity. It is also important in the regulation of antibody production (acquired immunity). Spirulina has been shown to inhibit production of IgE and modulate inflammation. Recent studies also show that Spirulina promotes IgA production in the saliva thereby inactivating foreign bodies and toxins found in food. (Mao et al., 2005; Hirahashi et al., 2002; Belay, 2002, Gershwin & Belay, 2007)
Antioxidant and Anti-inflammatory Activities
Another important health benefit of Spirulina is that it contains some phytonutrients that have strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities. * These antioxidants support cellular health by protecting cells from the damaging effects of reactive oxygen radicals. Such an oxidative stress that is a result of normal or abnormal metabolism, is known to damage cell membranes and DNA (the master molecule that programs all cellular structure and function) thereby negatively changing the structure and function of the cell. The other consequence of such damaging radicals is premature aging. The phytonutrients in Spirulina have been shown to have similar antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects to those obtained from eating certain fruits and vegetables. (Gemma et al., 2002; Belay, 2002, Gershwin & Belay 2007)
How Spirulina is Identified
Proper identification of Spirulina requires light microscope examination and some biochemical testing at a minimum. The following characteristics may be useful for identity testing:
Microscopic Examination of Live Spirulina
1. The filaments are 0.3 – 1.0 mm in length.
2. The filaments are coiled or helical for the most part though there could be straight forms at times.
3. The filaments are made up of many cells with clear and visible transverse cross walls.
4. The cells making the filaments are shorter than broad. The width varies between 6-12 micrometers.
5. The cells contain gas vacuoles (air sacs). In the living cell these gas vacuoles help the Spirulina to be buoyed up to the surface of the pond to get light. A good test is to place some culture in a test tube and observe the algae after one hour. Most of the cells should be seen at the top of the tube. (Tomasseli, L. 1997)
1. The most telling biochemical marker is the content of Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) that is virtually absent in other species of blue-green algae. Genuine Arthrospira strains have a significant proportion of γ-linolenic acid (GLA), no α-linolenic acid (ALA), a low content of 16:1 fatty acids and a very low content of 16:2 fatty acids. (Cohen and Vonshak 1991; Cohen et al. 1995).
2. The blue pigment, phycocyanin can be used to differentiate blue-green algae products from green and other algae like Chlorella, Dunalliela and Hematococcus. Since this pigment is also found in other species of blue-green algae, it cannot be used to differentiate Spirulina from other species of blue-green algae though Spirulina tends to have higher content of phycocyanin.
Sensory Observation of Spirulina Powder
1. Color: Dark green
2. Smell: Seaweed smell
3. Consistency: Fine powder (40 mesh)
How Spirulina is Grown
Arthrospira is cultivated in an alkaline aqueous medium rich in nutrient salts. The growth medium consists of water, sodium carbonate, nitrates, phosphates, sulfates, and trace minerals. The high pH and alkalinity of the growth medium inhibit the growth of potentially contaminating organisms, resulting in a virtual monoculture of Arthrospira strains. Nutrients are supplied by reliable manufacturers that include specifications for heavy metals and other possible contaminants. No solvents, pesticides, herbicides or toxic substances are used during any cultivation or manufacturing step of the product.
Arthrospira is grown in large, shallow mixed ponds that are lined with liners that are approved for potable water systems. Cultures are circulated by means of a paddlewheel. Nutrients are monitored and adjusted by laboratory chemists who conduct daily tests to assure consistency and optimal conditions. Ponds are harvested daily. The culture is transferred with a pump through pipes into a dedicated processing building, where it is passed over a series of stainless- steel screens to rinse and concentrate the biomass. The biomass slurry is then transferred by gravity to shaker screens for further concentration, and finally to a vacuum belt which accumulates the biomass as a paste and subjects it to a final washing step. The Arthrospira paste is then pumped into a spray dryer to remove the moisture, resulting in the free flowing fine powder known commonly as Spirulina. The entire process from pond to powder takes less than 15 minutes.
The dried powder is weighed and vacuum-sealed into various sized oxygen barrier bags to minimize exposure to air and prevent possible oxidation of phytonutrients such as β-carotene and fatty acids. The bags are then packed into cardboard boxes or drums, sealed with tape and labeled to reflect the package weight and lot numbers for tracking purposes. (Belay, 1997)
How Spirulina is Quality Controlled
Spirulina powder is manufactured in accordance with Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP) promulgated under the United States Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and applicable California statutes and regulations. These laws assure that the facilities, methods, practices, and controls used in the manufacture, processing, packing, or holding of food products are in conformance with or are operated in conformity with Good Manufacturing Practices to assure that the food products are safe for consumption and have been prepared, packed, and held under sanitary conditions.
Earthrise Nutritionals is the only producer of Spirulina in the continental USA, which has determined its Spirulina as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) by scientific procedures and FDA review.
The Earthrise Farm has its own state-of-the art laboratory that conducts scores of important quality control tests both on the live Spirulina in cultivation as well as the final product. Each lot of product produced daily undergoes testing and verification before it is released for sale. The shipment of the product is accompanied by a Certificate of Analysis that states the identity, potency, and safety of the product.
2. Belay, A. 2002. The potential application of Spirulina (Arthrospira) as a nutritional and therapeutic supplement in health management. Journal of the American Nutraceutical Association. 5: 27-48.
3. Cohen Z. & A. Vonshak. 1991. Fatty acid composition of Spirulina and Spirulina-like cyanobacteria in relation to their chemotaxonomy. Phytochem. 30: 205-206.
4. Cohen Z., M.C. Margheri & l. Tomaselli. 1995. Chemotaxonomy of cyanobacteria. Phtochem. 40: 1155-1158.
5. Gershwin, M.E. & Belay, A. (eds.) Spirulina in Human Nutrition and Health. CRC Press, 312pp.
6. Hirahashi T, M. Matsumoto, K. Hazeki, Y. Saeki, M. Ui, T. Seya. 2002. Activation of the human innate immune system by Spirulina: augmentation of interferon production and NK cytotoxicity by oral administration of hot water extract of Spirulina platensis. Int Immunopharmacol. 2(4):423-34.
7. Gemma, C., M.H. Mesches, B. Sepesi, K. Choo, D.B. Holmes & P.C. Bickford. 2002. Diets enriched in foods with high antioxidant activity reverse age-induced decreases in cerebellar beta-adrenergic function and increases in proinflammatory cytokines. J Neurosci.15;22(14):6114-20.
8. Mao T.K,, J, Van de Water & M.E.Gershwin 2005. Effects of a Spirulina-based dietary supplement on cytokine production from allergic rhinitis patients. J Med Food. 8(1):27-30.
9. Tomaselli, L. 1997. Morphology, ultrastructure and taxonomy of Arthrospira (Spirulina) maxima and Arthrospira (Spirulina) platensis. In: Vonshak, A. (ed.) Spirulina platensis (Arthrospira): Physiology, Cell-Biology and Biotechnology. Taylor and Francis. Pp. 1-15.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.