Millions of years ago, before there were hundreds of thousands of land plants, there was green algae. One of the four types of algae, green algae is an aquatic organism that has the ability to conduct photosynthesis. After a rise in technology leading to the ability to map genetics with greater accuracy, scientists and researchers have discovered that even the land plants (trees, flowers, mosses) that we are dependent upon today originated from green algae.
Algae is both crucial and critical to our very existence. And amidst this wide world of algae filled with 30,000 known species, there exists spirulina—a type of bacteria called cyanobacterium—or more commonly referred to as blue-green algae.
It grows in both fresh water and salt water and is becoming increasingly regarded as a superfood plant source, chock-full of incredible proteins, minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins.
History Behind the Ancient Superfood
Like all superfoods, the production of nutrient-dense spirulina is rich with history. It’s one of our planet’s first forms of life and dates back to the Archean Eon of 3.5 billion years ago. Human consumption of algae goes back to indigenous Mesoamerican cultures and early African tribes, where it was found to be a main food source for the people.
Spirulina became popularized again in the 1980s, when NASA brought forth the idea that it could be grown in space and consumed by astronauts. Today, of the many known species of algae, spirulina continues to make its indelible mark as one of the most widely studied of them all.
And for good reason.
Why Consume Spirulina?
Most plants have cell walls that cause many of their nutrients to be indigestible. Spirulina does not consist of these cell walls and therefore has the ability to be fully digested. This, in combination with its high amounts of condensed nutrients, makes it an incredible superfood for human consumption.
Spirulina is about 65% complete protein with the remainder being packed full of antioxidants, essential omega-3 fatty acids, and other vitamins (like vitamins B1, B2, B3, E, and K, as well as manganese, iron and more).
Studies have shown that spirulina can lower LDL cholesterol (as well as protect it from becoming oxidized) and triglyceride levels. Evidence indicates that it may have anti-cancer properties—particularly against oral cancer—and may also reduce blood pressure, improve muscle strength, help control blood sugar, and be effective against anemia and inflammation of the nasal airways.
Typically, spirulina is consumed in powder or pill form. As a powder, it can be mixed with water or juice, put in smoothies, and added to soups. Keep in mind that it’s important to be careful when purchasing spirulina, as some wild-harvested algae carries with it a risk of contamination from toxic substances called microcystins. Opt for high-quality spirulina from a trusted brand.
How It’s Grown
In the wild, spirulina has grown in natural soda or alkaline lakes since ancient times. It’s an alkaliphile, meaning it thrives when growing in extremely high alkaline water (at pH levels of 10+).
Though the idea of growing algae in your own home may at first seem like a far-flung science experiment, today a growing number of algae farmers are able to successfully produce algae with in-home growth tanks. If the pH is kept above 10, a pure culture can be maintained with proper covering on the tank and by keeping hands sanitized before working with the algae.
Spirulina can also be grown outdoors in open ponds, so long as there is continued pH testing to ensure that the level doesn’t drop. When spirulina is harvested and collected in its raw form, its consistency is thick like a paste.
San Diego’s GoSpiral Farms
Spirulina is among the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet when it’s consumed raw and living (as the process of drying and dehydrating is said to destroy much of its health benefits). Fresh spirulina has as much iron as spinach, more niacin than kale, more beta-carotene than carrots, and (like beef) is a complete protein containing all nine essential amino acids.
Luckily for San Diegans, our city is home to GoSpiral Farms, the only company in the state of California certified to produce raw spirulina as a food source (and the first in the nation).
Spirulina farmer Paul Cathcart describes their spirulina as “unique” since it comes from the “only farm in the country growing spirulina as a food rather than a dietary supplement.”
That means GoSpiral’s spirulina is actually considered a vegetable. Cathcart says that their closed growth system produces a pure and mild-tasting product that can be eaten by the spoonful or used creatively in condiments like salad dressing. You can purchase this form of small batch, craft-grown, 100% raw and unprocessed spirulina and directly support a local San Diego business at farmers’ markets in San Diego and Los Angeles, or on their website.
When it comes to our local agriculture industry, spirulina carries with it an immense amount of potential. It’s a protein that needs less land and water to be produced than livestock—and it abounds in health benefits.