Spirulina is a microscopic blue-green alga in the shape of a
spiral coil, living both in sea and fresh water. Spirulina is
the common name for human and animal food produced primarily
from two species of cyanobacteria: Arthrospira platensis, and
Arthrospira maxima. Though referred to as 'algae' because they
are aquatic organisms capable of photosynthesis, cyanobacteria
are not related to any of the various eukaryotic algae.
Arthrospira is cultivated around the world, and is used as a
human dietary supplement, as well as a whole food, and is
available in tablet, flake, and powder form. It is also used
as a feed supplement in the aquaculture, aquarium, and poultry
Arthrospira are free-floating filamentous cyanobacteria
characterized by cylindrical, multicellular trichomes in an
open left-hand helix. They occur naturally in tropical and
subtropical lakes with high pH and high concentrations of
carbonate and bicarbonate. Arthrospira platensis occurs in
Africa, Asia and South America, whereas Arthrospira maxima is
confined to Central America.
These maxima and platensis species were once classified in the
genus Spirulina. There is now agreement that they are in fact
Arthrospira; nevertheless, and somewhat confusingly, the older
term Spirulina remains in use for historical reasons.
An illustration from the Florentine Codex showing how the
Aztecs harvested spirulina off lakes by skimming the surface
with ropes (right) and then drying the algae into square cakes
which would be eaten as a nourishing condiment (left).
Spirulina was a food source for the Aztecs and other
Mesoamericans until the 16th century; its harvesting from Lake
Texcoco and subsequent sale as cakes is described by one of
Cortés' soldiers. The Aztecs called it Tecuitlatl,
meaning stone's excrement.
Spirulina was found in abundance at Lake Texcoco by French
researchers in the 1960s, but there is no reference to its use
there as a daily food source after the 16th century. The
first large-scale spirulina production plant, run by Sosa
Texcoco, was established there in the early 1970s.
Leo Szilard postulated the development of algae-based food
supplements (which he called "Amruss") in his 1961 short
story, The Voice of the Dolphins.
Spirulina may have an even longer history in Chad, as far back
as the 9th century Kanem Empire. It is still
in daily use today, dried into cakes called dihé, which are
used to make broths for meals, and also sold in markets. The
spirulina is harvested from small lakes and ponds around Lake
Most cultivated spirulina is produced in open-channel raceway
ponds, with paddle-wheels used to agitate the water. The
largest commercial producers of spirulina are located in the
United States, Thailand, India, Taiwan, China, Pakistan, Burma
(a.k.a. Myanmar) and Chile .
Nutrients and other chemicalsProtein
Spirulina contains an unusually high amount of protein with,
between 55% and 77% by dry weight, depending upon the
source. It is a complete protein, containing all essential
amino acids, though with reduced amounts of methionine,
cysteine, and lysine when compared to the proteins of meat,
eggs, and milk. It is, however, superior to
typical plant protein, such as that from legumes. 
 Essential fatty acids
Spirulina is rich in gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), and also
provides alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), linoleic acid (LA),
stearidonic acid (SDA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA),
docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and arachidonic acid (AA).
Spirulina contains vitamin B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3
(nicotinamide), B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folic acid), vitamin C,
vitamin D, vitamin A, and vitamin E.
The bioavailability of vitamin B12 in spirulina is in dispute.
Several biological assays have been used to test for the
presence of vitamin B12. The most popular is the US
Pharmacopeia method using the Lactobacillus leichmannii assay.
Studies using this method have shown spirulina to be a minimal
source of bioavailable vitamin B12. However, this assay
does not differentiate between true B12 (cobalamin) and
similar compounds (corrinoids) that cannot be used in human
metabolism. Cyanotech, a grower of spirulina, claims to have
done a more recent assay, which has shown spirulina to be a
significant source of cobalamin. However, the assay is not
published for scientific review, so the validity of this assay
is in doubt. The American Dietetic Association and
Dietitians of Canada in their position paper on vegetarian
diets state that spirulina cannot be counted on as a reliable
source of active vitamin B12.
Spirulina is a rich source of potassium, and also contains
calcium, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese,
phosphorus, selenium, sodium, and zinc.
Spirulina contains many pigments, including chlorophyll-a,
xanthophyll, beta-carotene, echinenone, myxoxanthophyll,
zeaxanthin, canthaxanthin, diatoxanthin, 3'-hydroxyechinenone,
beta-cryptoxanthin and oscillaxanthin, plus the
phycobiliproteins c-phycocyanin and allophycocyanin.
Considerations and Potential
Spirulina contains phenylalanine, which should be avoided by
people who have the metabolic disorder phenylketonuria, where
the body cannot metabolize this amino acid, and it builds up
in the brain, causing damage. Because spirulina is a
dietary supplement, the United States Food and Drug
Administration does not regulate the production and quality of
the product. Although rare, cyanobacteria like Spirulina may
contain toxins called microcystins, which accumulate in the
liver and can potentially cause cancer or other liver
diseases. Currently, no standard exists to regulate the safety
In vitro research
Spirulina extract inhibits HIV replication in human T-cells,
peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC), and Langerhans
An in vitro study in 2008 concluded that Spirulina may possess
iron chelating properties. Human neuroblastoma cells were
treated with a toxic amount of iron, and then treated with
Spirulina. When treated, the iron-induced oxidative stress was
Spirulina helps prevent heart damage caused by chemotherapy
using Doxorubicin, without interfering with its antitumor
activity. Spirulina reduces the severity of strokes and
improves recovery of motor control after a stroke;
reverses age-related declines in memory and learning; and
prevents and treats hay fever.
A study on the metabolism of mice indicates that it has little
effect on their metabolism, and therefore probably that of
A study with diabetic rats concluded that Spirulina maxima was
effective in correcting the abnormal carbohydrate and lipid
metabolisms caused by excess fructose within the body.
Spirulina has been found to increase weight gain and correct
anemia in both HIV-infected and HIV-negative undernourished
children because of its excellent nutritional quality.
Spirulina is effective for the clinical improvement of
melanosis and keratosis due to chronic arsenic poisoning.
A study in 2005 found that spirulina protects against hay
fever. A more recent double-blind, placebo-controlled
study in 2008 concerning 150 allergic rhinitis patients found
that Spirulina platensis significantly reduced the secretion
of pro-inflammatory interleukin-4 by 32%, and the patients
experienced symptomatic relief. Furthermore, Spirulina was
found to reduce the inflammation involved in arthritis in
geriatric patients by stimulating the secretion of
interleukin-2, which helps in regulating the inflammatory
A 2007 study found that 36 volunteers taking 4.5 grams of
spirulina per day, over a six week period, exhibited
significant changes in cholesterol and blood pressure: (1)
lowered total cholesterol; (2) increased HDL cholesterol; (3)
lowered triglycerides; and (4) lowered systolic and diastolic
blood pressure. This study, however, did not contain a control
group; researchers cannot be confident that the changes
observed are due totally, or even partially, to the effects of
the Spirulina maxima, as opposed to other confounding
variables (i.e., history effects, maturation effects or demand
characteristics). A randomized, double-blind,
placebo-controlled intervention study involving geriatric
patients determined that spirulina helped to significantly
reduce the LDL-to-HDL ratio after four months of
A 2007 study concluded that spirulina improved the antioxidant
potential of many geriatric patients who were administered it
for 16 weeks. The plasma of these patients showed a measured
increased level of total antioxidant status. A
double-blind, placebo-controlled study in 2006 found that
spirulina supplementation decreased the amount of creatine
kinase ( an indicator of muscular breakdown) in individuals
after exercise. Furthermore, the experimental group's time to
exhaustion during all out treadmill exercise increased by 52
seconds. These effects were thought to be due to spirulina's
See 2010 published study: Maria Kalafati; Athanasios Z.
Jamurtas; Michalis G. Nikolaidis; Vassilis Paschalis;
Anastasios A. Theodorou; Giorgos K. Sakellariou; Yiannis
Koutedakis; Dimitris Kouretas, Ergogenic and Antioxidant
Effects of Spirulina Supplementation in Humans, Medicine and
Science in Sports and Exercise®. 2010;42(1):142-151,
concluding a positive effect occurred, although the mechanism
was not well understood.
There are no known side effects to spirulina, however the body
may react to the consumption of it with symptoms including
fever, dizziness, nausea, rashes or itchiness.
Until recently, much spirulina was certified organic. In 2002,
the USDA's National Organic Standards Board voted to disallow
the use of Chilean nitrate. They granted a three-year window
to spirulina producers, which expired in 2006. As a result,
leading spirulina manufacturers have stopped labelling their
spirulina as organic, citing safety concerns of nitrate
The United Nations World Food Conference in 1974 lauded
spirulina as the 'best food for the future'. Recognizing the
inherent potential of spirulina in the sustainable development
agenda, several Member States of the United Nations came
together to form an intergovernmental organization named the
Intergovernmental Institution for the use of Micro-algae
Spirulina Against Malnutrition (IIMSAM). IIMSAM aspires to
build a consensus with the UN Member States, international
community and other stakeholders to make spirulina a key
driver to eradicate malnutrition, achieve food security and
bridge the health divide throughout the world.
Spirulina has been proposed by both NASA (CELSS) and the
European Space Agency (MELISSA) as one of the primary
foods to be cultivated during long-term space missions.
Notes & references
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Microorganism." Microbiological Reviews. 47, 4, Dec. 1983.
4. ^ Diaz Del Castillo, B. The Discovery and
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5. ^ Osborne, Ken; Kahn, Charles N. (2005). World
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6. ^ Abdulqader, G., Barsanti, L., Tredici, M.
"Harvest of Arthrospira platensis from Lake Kossorom (Chad)
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8. ^ http://www.bitterpoison.com/protein/11667/
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Profiles of Three Microalgae: Spirulina platensis, Chlorella
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11. ^ Variations in the Growth Response of Four
Different Vitamin B12 Assay Microorganisms to the Same Tissue
and Standard Preparations. Elizabeth A. Cook and Lillian N.
Ellis. Appl Microbiol. 1968 December; 16(12): 1831–1840.
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13. ^ Spirulina Pacifica as a Source of Cobalamin
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14. ^ Position of the American Dietetic Association and
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21. ^ Gemma, C., et al. "Diets enriched in foods with
high antioxidant activity reverse age-induced decreases in
cerebellar beta-adrenergic function and increases in
proinflammatory cytokines." Experimental Neurology. July 15,
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platensis in treating allergic rhinitis in rats." Journal of
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23. ^ Yin, J; Zuberi, A; Gao, Z; Liu, D; Liu, Z;
Cefalu, WT; Ye, J (Jul 2008). "Effect of Shilianhua extract
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U.,Bhadauriya, P., Prasad, G.B.K.S., & Bisen, P.S. (2008).
"Spirulina in Health Care Management". Current Pharmaceutical
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25. ^ Simpore, J., et al. "Nutrition Rehabilitation of
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49, 2005: 373-380.
26. ^ Mir Misbahuddin, AZM Maidul Islam, Salamat
Khandker, Ifthaker-Al-Mahmud, Nazrul Islam and Anjumanara.
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30. ^ Torres-Duran, Ferreira-Hermosillo, &
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31. ^ Lu, H.K., Hsieh, C.C. Hsu, J.J., Yang, Y.K.,
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33. ^ Organic standards spark spirulina row
34. ^ IIMSAM, Intergovernmental Institution for the use
of Micro-algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition
35. ^ Characterization of Spirulina biomass for CELSS
diet potential. Normal, Al.: Alabama A&M University, 1988.
36. ^ Cornet J.F., Dubertret G. "The cyanobacterium
Spirulina in the photosynthetic compartment of the MELISSA
artificial ecosystem." Workshop on artificial ecological
systems, DARA-CNES, Marseille, France, October 24–26, 1990.
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