Now that golden milk has enjoyed its moment in the sun, many wellness influencers have moved on to another good-for-you beverage: blue algae lattes. Heralded by many as a superfood, spirulina has taken over cafe menus (remember when unicorn lattes were everywhere?) as the smoothie booster du jour. Other forms of algae, like chlorella or E3’s proprietary strain Blue Majik, are riding the wave of spirulina’s popularity.
But just as doctors were singing its praises, the buzzy ingredient was making headlines for another reason: Algae was called out as the reason why people became violently ill after eating Soylent bars. Um, yikes.
So what’s the deal—is it safe to sip your oh-so-Instagrammable blue latte with impunity? To find out, I tapped Global Healing Center founder Edward Group, DC and NP, who spent five years researching and studying various types of algae.
Here, Dr. Group offers up everything you need to know about spirulina—and how to safely add it to your diet.
Why spirulina is trending right now
According to Dr. Group, there are literally thousands of different types of algae, but three are by far the most popular: spirulina (the main ingredient in those strikingly blue lattes), AFA, and chlorella. First, the good news on The Big Three: “They all have very high concentrations of nutrients and vitamins, including protein, iron, potassium, zinc, calcium, and B vitamins.”
Also, according to Dr. Group, 60 percent of algae is made up of protein. Soy has a comparable amount, but a major reason a growing number of food manufacturers are favoring algae is that all those added nutrients come with the protein. It’s like buying a pair of leggings, and finding out at checkout that you get a sports bra and tank for free.
Spirulina, AFA, and chlorella also serve as a magnet for toxins in the body—and they do an excellent job of flushing them out. Clearly algae is full of health benefits.
The benefits of spirulina
Spirulina is trending for a reason—it really can do a lot of good for the body. The benefits of spirulina include:
- Being a powerhouse of nutrients: Spirulina includes vitamins B1, 2, and 3, iron, magnesium, iron, and potassium. Studies show it really is one of the most nutrient-dense foods there is, qualifying it for full-blown superfood status. But scientific research also says that not all spirulina has the same amount of benefits; some spirulina sources are better than others.
- Assists the body in flushing out toxins, including heavy metals: Spirulina is such a powerful detoxifier that it’s sometimes used as a natural water filter, keeping out lead, mercury, and other seriously harmful toxins. The reason why it works so well is because it contains proteins and peptides that are particularly good at binding to the toxins and excreting them out of the body. That way, they aren’t being absorbed into your bloodstream and working their way into your system.
- Boosts the immune system: You know how filling your room with houseplants can help you breath better? Plants aren’t the only green that have that effect—this vibrantly hued algae can as well. Spirulina contains a compound called phycocyanin, an antioxidant that fights off anything that could cause damage to your cells. If you feel a cold coming on—or everyone around you seems to be sick—it can’t hurt to work some extra spirulina into your diet to give your immune cells that added layer of protection.
- May lower blood pressure: That antioxidant effect works in favor for blood pressure, too, by helping increase blood flow. Spirulina increases the production of nitric oxide, a gas molecule that helps widen blood vessels. That way, blood flows more easily and the heart doesn’t have to work as hard.
- May support healthy weight management: First off, even though spirulina is full of nutrients, it only has 20 calories per tablespoon. It also contains an amino acid called l-phenylalanine, which has been linked to suppressing appetite.
- Increases endurance for athletes: Are spirulina protein bars the next big thing? Maybe they should be. Studies show that taking it on a regular basis can up athletes’ endurance. Why? You better believe better blood flow is part of it. Think how hard your heart has to work when you’re trying to climb that Peloton leaderboard. Any boost in the blood flow department is going to help endurance when you need it the most.
- Helps muscular endurance: More of a CrossFit junkie? There’s some benefits for you, too. Studies have shown that athletes who take spirulina on a regular basis don’t get tired as easily when lifting weights as people who don’t take it. This, again, comes down to better blood flow. But reaping the rewards of all the nutrients—perhaps most notably the protein in this case—is a contributing factor as well.
- Prevents reoccurring yeast infections: We’re going there. It turns out the little green giant can help balance vaginal bacteria. Just like how spirulina is a magnet for toxins like heavy metals, it also attracts candida cells and can flush them out of the body. And it isn’t just bringing balance down below; the same course of action can happen in your gut, too, to help bring balance there as well.
- Helps fight allergies: If pollen, dog hair, grass, or other environmental factors are putting your allergies into overdrive, spirulina can jump into action, fighting ’em off. The recommended dosage: two grams a day to keep your eyes clear and nose from running. Who needs OTCs when you can go all-natural?
But not not all spirulina on the marketplace is worth shelling out for. Dr. Group offers up a big buyer’s beware…
Beware of shady spirulina
“[My team and I] tested spirulina, AFA, and chlorella from all over the world and found that the majority of them were contaminated with different types of metals such as arsenic, aluminum, mercury, or lead,” Dr. Group reveals.
Why the scary levels of contamination? Blame the manufacturers. “A lot of companies use fillers, whether they’re selling the spirulina in capsules or using it as a food ingredient—like a flour; it’s not the spirulina itself that’s toxic, but what it’s being mixed with,” Dr. Group explains. “When you start mixing it with genetically modified maltodextrin, soy protein isolates, or other compounds, a lot of times that can cause contamination.”
Considering one of the core ingredients in those Soylent bars—besides algae flour—is soy isolate, it sounds like he may be onto something.
Despite the contamination risks, Dr. Group notes that “algae is one of the world’s most nutrient-dense foods—I would never want to deter someone from taking it.” The key is paying close attention to the source.
How to pick a safe spirulina
To make sure the smoothie booster is clean and pure, our expert advises sticking with companies that are organic, non-GMO, and gluten-free—which will limit cross-contamination a lot.
He also says to check out brands’ websites to see if they call out where their spirulina is sourced from and whether any testing has been done to verify that it’s clean. If they’re not touting that information, be wary. Because spirulina is so trendy right now, some people are using it to get rich quick, buying the cheapest spirulina possible (even if it’s from a shady supplier) and selling it at a premium price. Not everyone tests for toxicity—and those are the suppliers you need to be wary of.
And if you’re eating out? Your server should be knowledgable about what’s being served. If he or she can’t speak intelligently about it, buying premium goods might not be a priority for the cafe. This may be one instance where fully becoming a Portlandia character and knowing as much as you can about the path from ocean to table is worth the effort (and the awkwardness).
Originally posted March 29, 2017. Updated July 6, 2018.
While you’re adding more superfoods to your diet, you definitely don’t want to leave out the seven on this list. And while it won’t make you sick, chia seeds (that other buzzy ingredient) might be the cause of your bloating.
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