Super green food


  • Health
  • Sunday, 05 Jan 2003

By RAJEN. M

WHAT food would qualify for the title of “the most powerful food on earth”? There must be much debate about this, but one food – a primitive blue green algae called spirulina – would come closest.  

The list of endorsements is quite impressive. The National Aeronautics And Space Administration (NASA) of the United States feeds astronauts in space with spirulina on their long haul flights. The United Nations bills it as “food for the future”. The World Health Organisation (WHO) calls it “useful food” and feeds starving kids in China, India and Tanzania. The Russians are investigating is as “radiation and immune enhancing medicine” after its impressive effects following the Chenorbyl disaster. 

Billion year history 

Spirulina (rhymes with ballerina) is a tiny water plant and is believed to have been the first form of plant life on this planet some 3.6 billion years ago. In fact, the plant was almost certainly the basis of the food chain in the water world.  

Not surprisingly, it packs a real wallop! In per weight terms, it is the richest source of protein in the world (six times more than eggs and twenty times more than milk). It is the richest source of natural iron. It packs 58 times iron than spinach. Popeye, the sailor man should actually be taking this stuff!  

Spirulina is also the richest and only vegetarian source of vitamin B12 (12 times more than raw beef liver). It has the highest known natural beta carotene (pro-vitamin A) content (25 times more than raw carrot). It a rich “one stop shop” source of antioxidants. It provides 10 times more than common vegetables. It also provides 18 out of 22 amino acids that you body needs (the rest your body makes itself). As it is a plant, it is cholesterol free.  

Since its re-discovery in the 1960s, spirulina has been extensively and exhaustively tested around the world. It seems that the future has arrived. Over the last 20 years, scientists have re-discovered the fantastic benefits of consuming this algae.  

Natural 

Spirulina provides natural supplements. Eating enough isolated vitamins or man-made vitamins to fulfill the body's needs is gaining less and less acceptance. Don't confuse synthetic vitamins with the natural vitamins derived from food. The American Cancer Society says that food is the best source of vitamins and minerals as it provides other potential cancer protection benefits not offered by synthetic and isolated supplements (Eating Smart - The American Cancer Society - 1995). 

Our bodies will not metabolise the synthetic vitamins as completely and properly as whole foods. The same goes with the minerals. When they are in the natural organic state, they are easily absorbed and metabolised. Chinese researchers discovered that zinc deficient children aged three years and above recovered better with high zinc spirulina tablets from biological sources than with common zinc sulfate. More than twice as many children were cured through the use of high zinc spirulina. The researchers theorised that high zinc spirulina had many bioactive and nutritious substances that improve mineral absorption, and hence, result in better general health and a stronger immune system. 

Potential 

Spirulina is gaining more attention from medical scientists as a source of potential pharmaceuticals.  

There are several new peer reviewed scientific studies about spirulina's ability to inhibit viral replication, strengthen both the cellular and humoral arms of the immune system and cause regression and inhibition of cancers.  

While these studies are preliminary and more research is needed, the results so far are exciting. 

Vegetarians 

A major concern amongst vegetarians is that they might not be getting enough protein, vitamin B12 and iron. Spirulina is one of the richest sources of protein and iron. It is also the only vegetarian source of vitamin B12. 

Phycocyanin  

Spirulina is dark blue-green in colour because it is rich in a brilliant blue polypeptide called phycocyanin. Studies show that phycocyanin affects the stem cells found in bone marrow. Stem cells are “grandmother” to both the white blood cells that make up the cellular immune system and red blood cells that oxygenate the body. 

Chinese scientists document phycocyanin stimulating hematopoiesis, (the creation of blood), emulating the effect of the hormone erythropoetin (EPO). EPO is produced by healthy kidneys and regulates bone marrow stem cell production of red blood cells. Chinese scientists claim phycocyanin also regulates production of white blood cells, even when bone marrow stem cells are damaged by toxic chemicals or radiation. 

Potential health benefits 

Spirulina is one of the most concentrated natural sources of nutrients known. It contains all the essential amino acids, is rich in chlorophyll, beta-carotene and its co-factors and other natural phytochemicals.  

Spirulina is the only green food rich in GLA essential fatty acid. GLA stimulates growth in some animals and makes skin and hair shiny and soft, yet more durable. GLA also acts as an anti-inflammatory, sometimes alleviating symptoms of arthritic conditions. 

Spirulina acts as a functional food, feeding beneficial intestinal flora, especially Lactobacillus and Bifidus. Maintaining a healthy population of these bacteria in the intestine reduces potential problems from opportunistic pathogens like E. coli and Candida albicans. Studies show that when spirulina is added to the diet, beneficial intestinal flora increase. 

Dosage  

What is the best way to take spirulina? It is best consumed fresh, just like anything else Mother Nature makes. However, it has a rather strong and somewhat repulsive fish smell. The next best alternative is to take it as a spray dried powder. This usually comes in the form of sachets or free flowing powder. This may still pose some problems from a taste and smell point of view.  

The best and most elegant pharmaceutical dosage form is capsule. Here the spray dried powders are merely put into capsules without any heat or chemical binders. Another form, the tablet, is not very desirable as there is some heat generated during processing. Furthermore, chemical binders are added. These can interfere with the subsequent absorption of the minuscule trace micronutrients. Most manufacturers recommend that the tablets be chewed. That really takes you back to square one as far as taste and effect are concerned. Always read the labels with regards to chewing.  

Conclusion 

Based on this preliminary research, scientists hope the use of spirulina and its extracts may reduce or prevent cancers and viral diseases. Bacterial or parasitic infections may be prevented or respond better to treatment and wound healing may improve. Symptoms of anaemia, poisoning and immunodeficiency may be alleviated.  

Scientists in the United States, Japan, China, Russia, India and other countries are studying this remarkable food to unlock its potential. More research is needed to determine its usefulness against AIDS and other killer diseases. However, it is already clear this safe and natural food provides concentrated nutrients for health and wellness. 

Rajen. M is a pharmacist with a doctorate in Holistic Medicine. You can write to him at starhealth@thestar.com.my . The views expressed are those of the writer and readers are advised to always consult expert advice before undertaking any changes to their lifestyles. 

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