Pond scum — it’s what’s for dinner. Hyped by supplement enthusiasts as providing a number of magical benefits, certain types of algae may actually be a legitimate source of a number of vitamins and minerals from iron to vitamin AHealth benefits of blue-green algae: Prevention of cardiovascular disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Ku CS, Yang Y, Park Y, et al. Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Connecticut, Storrs. Journal of Medicinal Food, 2013; 16(2), 103-111.. While ancient societies such as the Mayans recognized certain types of algae as food sources, only in recent years has public attention turned to their numerous health benefitsHypolipidemic, antioxidant, and antiinflammatory activities of microalgae spirulina. Deng R, Chow TJ. Cardiovascular Therapeutics, 2010; 28(4), e33–45..

Amazing Algae — Why it’s Super

Edible “algae,” known as blue-green algae, include several types of bacteria and microalgae: Algae supplements often contain spirulina, aphanizomenon flos-aquae (AFA), or chlorella (try to say those five-times fast)Toxin content and cytotoxicity of algal dietary supplements. Heussner AH, Mazija L, Fastner J, et al. Human and Environmental Toxicology, University of Konstanz, Germany. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 2012; 265(2), 263-271.. High in polyunsaturated fatty acids and protein, these algae pack some impressive nutritional statsPolyunsaturated fatty acids of marine macroalgae: Potential for nutritional and pharmaceutical applications. Pereira H, Barreira L, Figueiredo F, et al. Centre of Marine Sciences, University of Algarve, Faro, Portugal. Marine Drugs, 2012; 10(9), 1920-1935..

Spirulina has been shown to contain beta-carotene and phycocyanin, both pigments that act as antioxidants and help to reduce inflammationHypolipidemic, antioxidant, and antiinflammatory activities of microalgae spirulina. Deng R, Chow TJ. Cardiovascular Therapeutics, 2010; 28(4), e33–45.C-phycocyanin: a biliprotein with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects. Romay C, González R, Ledón N, et al. Departamento de Farmacologia, Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Cientificas, Apartado 6412, Habana, Cuba. Current Protein Peptide Science, 2003;4(3):207-16.. Beta-carotene, in particular, has been shown to promote eye healthAge-related macular degeneration. Cheung LK, Eaton A. Department of Pharmacy Practice, Texas Southern University, College of Phramacy and Health Sciences, Houston, TX. Pharmacotherapy, 2013 April 11.. Plus, it’s high in iron and vitamin ASpirulina as a source of vitamin A. Annapurna VV, Deosthale YG, Bamji MS. National Institute of Nutrition, Indian Council of Medical Research, Hyderabad. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, 1991;41(2), 125-134.Iron bioavailability from spirulina platensis, whole egg and whole wheat. Kapoor R, Mehta U. Department of Foods and Nutrition, Haryana Agricultural University, Hisar, India. Indian Journal of Experimental Biology, 1992;30(10), 904-907.. Some studies have also found that spirulina can help reduce total cholesterol, raise HDL (“good” cholesterol), and lower blood pressureHypolipidemic, antioxidant, and antiinflammatory activities of microalgae spirulina. Deng R, Chow TJ. Cardiovascular Therapeutics, 2010; 28(4), e33–45.Effects of dietary spirulina on vascular reactivity. Juarez-Oropeza MA, Mascher D, Torres-Duran P, et al. Departamento de Bioquimica, Facultad de Medicina, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. Journal of Medicinal Food, 2009; 12(1), 15-20.. It may also help protect against liver damage (but this has only been shown in mice)Spirulina improves non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, visceral fat macrophage aggregation, and serum leptin in a mouse model of metabolic syndrome. Fujimoto M, Tsuneyama K, Fujimoto T, et al. Department of Japanese Oriental Medicine, Graduate School of Medicine and Phramaceutical Sciences, University of Toyama, Japan. Digestive and Liver Disease : Official Journal of the Italian Society of Gastroenterology and the Italian Association for the Study of the Liver, 2012; 44(9), 767-774..

AFA provides similar antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits due to its high phycocyanin contentAntioxidant properties of a novel phycocyanin extract from the blue-green alga aphanizomenon flos-aquae. Benedetti S, Benvenuti F, Pagliarani S, et al. Institute of Histology, University of Urbino Carlo Bo, Via Seppi, Italy. Life Sciences, 2004; 75(19), 2353-2362.. It’s also is a rich source of vitamin B12 and has been shown to improve B12 levels in vegans, a group at risk for deficiencyEffect of a klamath algae product (“AFA-B12”) on blood levels of vitamin B12 and homocysteine in vegan subjects: A pilot study. Baroni L, Scoglio S, Benedetti S, et al. Department of Neurorehabilitation, Villa Salus Hospital, Mestre-Venice, Italy. International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 2009; 79(2), 117-123..

A third green machine, the micro-algae chlorella, offers improved immune function and may be effective at treating a number of diseases including hypertension and fibromyalgiaBeneficial immunostimulatory effect of short-term chlorella supplementation: Enhancement of natural killer cell activity and early inflammatory response (randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial). Kwak JH, Baek SH, Woo Y, et al. Yonsei University Research Institute of Science for Aging, Yonsei University, Seoul, Korea. Nutrition Journal, 2012 Jul 31; 11:53.A review of recent clinical trials of the nutritional supplement chlorella pyrenoidosa in the treatment of fibromyalgia, hypertension, and ulcerative colitis. Merchant RE, Andre CA. Virginia Commonwealth University, Medical College of Virginia, Richmond, VA. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 2001 May-Jun; 7(3), 79-91..

Supplement with Spirulina — Your Action Plan

Before deciding to go green, consider a few red flags: Although blue-green algae has been used for centuries and several studies have demonstrated the safety of cultivated blue-green algae, naturally- harvested blue-green algae may contain some toxic substancesIn vitro and in vivo safety assessment of edible blue-green algae, Nostoc commune var. sphaeroides Kutzing and Spirulina plantensis Yang Y, Park Y, Cassada DA., et al. Food and Chemical Toxicology : An International Journal Published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 2011 July; 49(7), 1560-1564.United states pharmacopeia safety evaluation of spirulina. Marles RJ, Barrett ML, Barnes J, et al. United States Pharacopeia Ditary Supplements Information Expert Committee Members, Rockville, MD. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 2011 Aug; 51(7), 593-604.. (Women who are nursing or pregnant should be particularly careful.)These algae may also interact with other medications or supplements. Bottom line? Algae have many potential benefits, but the jury is still out on their safety and effectiveness.

If you choose to give the green a try, look for it in capsule or powder form at your local health store (or online). It can also be found as the base of some protein powders and other supplement mixes. From there, the sky’s the limit. The capsules or pills can be taken just like a vitamin, but the powder (in both plain and flavored protein-powder form) can go into all sorts of things. Whip up a bright blue-green smoothie, or sprinkle it on popcorn. And for yet another reason for a daily chocolate fix, check out these bars.

Photo: William Ismael

Would you consider trying an algae supplement — or do you take one already? Do you think the health benefits outweigh the risks? Share with us in the comments below!