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Spirulina The Little Algae That Could

spirulina sea algae

No one knows why, when the Aztec Indians were discovered by Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez in 1519, they were already consuming dried cakes of Spirulina, or, as they called it, tecuitlat–“the stone’s excrement”–harvested in fishing nets from Lake Texcoco.

And no one knows when the Kanembu people on the western edge of the Lake Chad region of central Africa began harvesting mats of Spirulina from the edges of the small ponds around the lake, draining them of their water, and sun-drying them. But they have lived by Lake Chad since 1396.

Whether from their lack of other easily obtainable food sources or some understanding of the benefits they received from Spirulina, the ancient Aztecs and Kanembus were on to a great thing. And the 20th century “civilized” world came very late to the party where the Spirulina cakes were being served.

French Professor Pierre Dangeard, an expert phycologist, reported in 1940 that the Kanembus of Lake Chad were eating cakes of blue-green algae, which they called dihe. The Professor also reported that he had learned of a similar blue-green algae growing in, and feeding the flamingo populations of, several lakes Eastern Africa’s Rift valley

But it took another quarter of a century before Jean Leonard, a Belgian botanist participating in a 1964 expedition to Lake Chad, noticed some blue-green “cookies” for sale in the local markets. He determined that the cookies were made of the algae from alkaline lakes northeast of Lake Chad, at the same time that French scientists were researching Spirulina from Lake Texcoco.

From that point, it took the French only five years to open the first modern Spirulina processing plant, named Sosa Texcoco, at the lake. Seven years later, Japan’s Dainippon Ink and Chemicals opened its own Spirulina plant in Thailand, followed by Microbio’s California factory and Cyanotech’s in Hawaii. Most of today’s commercially produced Spirulina is grown in the U.S, Thailand, India, and China. The Sosa Texcoco was closed in the 1980s after the U.S. government banned importation of its Spirulina for quality reasons.

But that hasn’t stopped Spirulina’s popularity as a health-food supplement from skyrocketing over the past two decades. Because it grows so quickly, Spirulina’s per-acre yield of protein, at 65% is nearly two thousand times greater than that of another popular health food, soybeans. But it’s the vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients attached to all that protein which make Spirulina unique among the “superfoods”.

Spirulina is rich, among other things, in B vitamins, beta-carotene, phytonutrients, and iron. Spirulina can replace nutritional content that been missing for generations from over-processed Western diets, and give the undernourished people of the planet the protein and vitamins of which they have been deprived for far too long.

Although Spirulina does not qualify as a “whole” protein because it is low in the essential amino acids cysteine and methionine, the only food which comes close to the correct balance of essential amino acids is eggs. Spirulina is second only to eggs in terms of the percentage of its protein and amino acids actually absorbed by the intestine.

Preliminary research has shown that Spirulina, by strengthening cell walls against viral attack, may be beneficial in combating the Herpes Simplex, measles, mumps, and even HIV-1 viruses.

Pure Spirulina is available in numerous forms, from powders and flakes to capsules and tablets. It is also commonly combined with green food supplements like barley or wheat grass. There have been no recommended daily dosages established for Spirulina, but reported uses ranges from 250 milligrams to 5 grams daily, taken in several doses. Spirulina has never been shown to have any serious side effects.

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