Ever think about where humans evolved from? When life on Earth began 4 billion years ago, all living things were simple, single-celled organisms. Meaning they had one single cell that did all the work needed for survival. Years later, the first multicellular organisms evolved and have continued to evolve to create Earth's biodiversity. Everything from humans to dogs, even trees and tomatoes, all came from those first single-celled organisms!
At the root of everything lies microalgae. Microalgae are microscopic unicellular, photosynthetic organisms. In English, they are single-celled beings, naked to the human eye, that use sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to grow. Like plants, algae consumes carbon dioxide in order to produce oxygen that humans use to breathe. So really, for the last 4 billion years, microalgae have played a pivotal role in the natural cycle of life by paving the way for all oxygen-breathing life on Earth. And all with one, single cell? AMAZING!
Throughout history, aquatic and terrestrial animals, humans included, have consumed microalgae to survive. Thousands of microalgae species exist worldwide; however, fewer than 50 are known to be edible. The most prominent of these edible microalgae is spirulina-- a blue-green microalga that is now grown and consumed in all continents of the world (except Antarctica of course!). Spirulina has risen to fame in the past decade because of the incredible health benefits that come with consuming it.
But if microalgae have been around for billions of years, when did spirulina come along? And when did humans start using it?
The History of Spirulina
Although there are stories of people using blue-green algae thousands of years ago in Africa and Asia, the most well documented civilization using spirulina algae is the Aztecs.
In the 15th century, the Aztecs would harvest spirulina from lakes using finely woven nets. They would add the wet spirulina to breads and cheeses. Or, they would lay it out on flat sheets of rock or form patties and leave them out in the sun to dry. The Aztec people would also trade and sell the patties at local markets for other goods. And, their messengers, who would run marathons to travel between cities, would bring some spirulina with them to maintain energy during these long, physically exhausting runs.
Spirulina algae has had a long and interesting history. It is unclear when, or even why, it lost its popularity. Today, it has been rediscovered and dubbed “the food of the future” because of its numerous environmental and nutritional benefits that support both people and the planet.
The Environmental Benefits
Did you know that the agriculture industry contributes 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions? That half of the world's usable land is used for agriculture? That deforestation and a loss of biodiversity is directly related to food production? Or that 70% of all freshwater used in the world is used for agriculture?
It's crazy to think that food, which is so essential to human life, can be so detrimental to the planet. Yet today, we are using up so much of the Earth's natural resources. With the global population expected to reach 10 billion people by 2050, how can we feed more people, end world hunger, and use the same, if not less, natural resources?
But how does climate change and greenhouse gas emissions relate to spirulina? You may have guessed it, but spirulina can help with all of it!
Spirulina grows in giant pools of water. It can be grown in a lab, in vertical farms, or even in the desert! Yes, you read that right, the desert! So, rather than destroying ecosystems like fields and forests to grow spirulina, it can grow on land that would otherwise be unusable. This is the opposite of traditional farming and livestock production, which uses over half of the world’s usable land! So, by consuming spirulina, less land destruction happens, less trees are cut down to produce food, and the world’s ecosystems remain in balance.
Since spirulina is grown in large pools, 95% of the water used in its production is reused. With traditional crops, you water them, the water is absorbed into the soil, some of it drawn up by the plant to grow, and the rest remains in the Earth. But with spirulina, there is more water reused, less water waste, and more fresh water available for the rest of the world.
Spirulina has an incredibly high yield- it can go from farm to table in 8 hours. That means, every day, spirulina can be harvested 3 times a day. No more waiting for the right season or the perfect weather conditions to grow your food; fresh spirulina is available all year round. This high yield means more food is available all year round, enabling us to feed more people and quickly.
Even though spirulina algae is technically not a plant, it has all the benefits of plants that we love! Spirulina has a 2:1 carbon capture--this means that for every gram of spirulina produced, 2 grams of oxygen is produced, and 2 grams of carbon dioxide are removed from the atmosphere. To put that into perspective, one IMPACT bar contains 7 grams of spirulina, which consumes 14 grams of carbon dioxide and produces 14 grams of oxygen.
The Nutritional Benefits
We don't just love spirulina for its environmental benefits- its nutrition profile is next level! In addition to all the amazing environmental benefits, spirulina has even more benefits for the people who consume it! It is one of the most nutrient-dense foods out there, if not THE most nutrient-dense food ever.
Protein is a complex subject. Everyone knows they need protein; however, not everyone knows why or what it does for your body. And for plant based eaters, getting protein can be a complicated process.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. They are small little molecules made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen arranged in different ways. Most people, when asked about protein, immediately think if meat. This is because meat contains all the essential amino acids humans need.
This is one reason why switching to a plant-based diet can be so overwhelming and confusing. Only a handful of plant-based sources, like soy, contain all essential amino acids. However, most sources include only a handful of the necessary amino acids, meaning you have to mix and match your different plant-based proteins to get all the essentials.
The good news is that spirulina algae is a source of all the essential amino acids! Making spirulina a very convenient plant-based source for protein because you can add it into whatever food you are eating without having to worry about what you're going to balance it out with. Even better, spirulina is incredibly high in protein- it is 70% protein by weight so not only are you getting all your essential amino acids, you're getting a ton of protein in!
Spirulina is naturally high in iron. Every teaspoon of spirulina contains 8% of the recommended daily iron intake. Believe it or not, spirulina has a higher iron content per gram than beef, chicken, or other animal sources! For plant-based eaters, this is an amazing way to get a large amount of iron into your diet. In fact, it is so high in iron that doctors will recommend it to their patients who are iron deficient that don't want to take pills.
But why is iron so important? In the blood, iron attaches to the red blood cells to help deliver more oxygen to your muscles and organs. Everyone knows we need oxygen to live, and that is because it is essential to many of the chemical processes that happen in your body. When your body is low in iron, like it is with anemia, less oxygen is available to be delivered. With less oxygen, your body is not able to create enough energy, which is why people with an iron deficiency are often tired.
Omega-3 and omega-6 are the "good fats" that everyone tries to include in their diets. They support brain function, a healthy weight, lower blood pressure, and help prevent and manage heart disease.
When we think of omegas, we think of fish and fish oil. So to incorporate it into their diet, people eat fish a few times a week or else take a giant omega pill to get all the benefits. But where do fish get their omegas from? They don't make their own omega fatty acids? Algae!
Fish consume soooo much algae! All-day, every day, they're swimming around and eating algae. And because algae are so high in omegas, fish take in more than they need and store the rest in their bodies. Which is why when humans eat fish, they get a good serving of all those good fats.
Spirulina algae contains a ton of fatty acids! Each serving of spirulina contains roughly 1 gram of omega-3 and omega-6. By eating spirulina, you are cutting out the middleman (or should I say middle fish) and getting the omegas straight from the source. This also has positive environmental impacts, because by eating less fish, there is less mass fishing occuring, and less destruction to the oceans.
…& so much more!
There's a lot more to spirulina than just protein, iron, and omegas. It is high in many other essential vitamins and minerals. Things like, B vitamin complexes, magnesium, and fibre; in fact, there are too many even to list! Check out this table that breaks down all the different vitamins and minerals within spirulina algae!
When humans produce energy, it can come from two different sources: carbohydrates, or carbs, and fat. It is really fast and easy for our bodies to use carbohydrates to make energy, but because it's so fast, we don't get that much energy from them. On the other hand, fat takes a bit more time to be converted to energy, but the energy we get from fat lasts far longer.
Because spirulina is high in fatty acids, like omega-3 and 6, supplementing with spirulina increases fat oxidation and decreases carbohydrate oxidation. This means our bodies start to use more fats to produce energy rather than carbohydrates, giving us better and longer-lasting energy.
Humans store fat that they can use to make energy later on, but they can't really store carbohydrates. Since we have fat stores all over our body, if we start using fat for energy, there is a much bigger supply, meaning there is more energy available during long duration activities, like running and cycling. So taking spirulina daily can help to improve athletic performance by increasing available energy and reducing muscle damage!
Antioxidants are great for helping to prevent cell damage but did you know they can also help with recovery from exercise? Spirulina is great at reducing high levels of inflammation throughout the body, including inflammation from a strenuous workout! Consuming spirulina daily helps to prevent muscle damage caused by exercise so your muscles can also perform at their optimal level!
Spirulina also helps to reduce lactate levels that are produced from intensity activity. Studies were done on long-distance runners to see the effects of spirulina on their performance. Consistently, the people who took spirulina had a longer time to exhaustion than those who used other protein powders.
Despite all the amazing environmental, nutritional, and health benefits, very few people are familiar with spirulina, and even less consume it on a regular basis! When we first learned about spirulina, we were SHOCKED to learn about all these incredible benefits but were even more surprised to see nothing available in the market that was made with spirulina.
At Algi, our mission is to create delicious, purpose driven food products centred around spirulina algae. We are creating an expansive line of food products centred around algae that makes it easy for everyone to get a sustainable and balanced diet. Check out all of our products here!
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