Bob Brockie samples a health food that saw the dinosaurs come and go

We’ve all seen the claims – Spirulina! Nature’s Health Solution! The World’s Healthiest Superfood! Soulfood!
“Spirulina – the ancient blue-green micro-algae found growing in the lakes of Africa and Central and South America, derives its energy directly from the sun, contains 100 nutrients, is a rich source of iron, is extremely alkalising, energy-packed, supports the maintenance of the beneficial gut flora, is rich in antioxidants, contains 65% protein, etc.” Many firms claim that Spirulina “will reduce diabetes, cancer, hives, cataracts, wrinkles, anaemia, eczema, HIV, hypertension, detoxify the kidneys, help balance your RNA and DNA nucleic acids, and protect you against radiation.”

Small wonder that huge volumes of this cure-all are drunk or eaten daily. One US firm sells over $50 million worth of Spirulina every year. But most chemists and medicos think these claims are laughable.

“Found growing in the lakes of Africa and Central and South America?” Yes, this is true but Spirulina also grows in almost any stagnant fresh or brackish pool near you in New Zealand. Nevertheless, a lot of the Spirulina sold in New Zealand is produced in industrial vats in the US.

As for the nutritional claims – the same could be said about almost any green vegetable on Earth. Spinach or broccoli also contain 100 nutrients, are a rich source of iron and vitamins, are extremely alkalising in the stomach, support the maintenance of the beneficial gut flora, and are rich in antioxidants. If you want protein it’s cheaper to eat an egg, which is 87% protein. And what’s this? “Spirulina contains antioxidant ammunition in the form of the enzyme Superoxide dismutase!” Nobody can deny this but it’s a silly claim. Superoxide dismutase is the most abundant enzyme in the world. Every green plant is full of the stuff.

To be really pedantic, Spirulina is not an alga at all, it’s a bacterium. Ancient? Yes. Because Spirulina has a long fossil history it is often promoted as a “Dinosaur Drink”. “It must be good for you because it’s so old” but the promotion people got the date wrong. Spirulina was around 600 million years before dinosaurs trod the Earth. We should call it “The Proterozoic Drink”.

Raw Spirulina tastes vile, which is why Spirulina smoothies must be masked with pureed banana, kiwifruit and apricot. These additives provide more energy and vitamins than the Spirulina itself.

Who’s for a broccoli smoothie?
Originally published in the Dominion Post, 11 November 2002

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