A spiral-shaped algae is cheap and easy to grow. It’s so nutritious that NASA thinks it can power people to Mars. On earth it can keep kids healthy.
Spirulina powder. (Credit: Madeleine Steinbach for Getty Images)
An algae that has been around since before dinosaurs walked the earth might be the food source for a mission to Mars. Closer to home, spirulina, a protein-packed algae, is seen as the way to rid the world of malnutrition.
For children aged zero to five, malnutrition is a global concern. Despite continued progress over the last decade, 148 million children under five were too short for their age in 2022, according to the World Health Organization. Another 45 million were too thin for their height. Most children with malnutrition live in Asia and Africa.
“Spirulina has a tremendous potential,” said Dr. Yogesh Shouche, one of India’s leading microbiologists at the National Center for Cell Science in Pune, Maharashtra.
Studies conducted by Shouche showed that supplementing spirulina to a diet could also be beneficial for overall gut health, especially in children. “Spirulina’s benefit on malnutrition works two ways,” Shouche said. First, it acts as a nutritional supplement. It also modulates microbiomes that affect our overall health, he said.
Despite its fishy taste, spirulina — a spiral-shaped blue-green algae — was the superfood of the Aztecs. They harvested it from Lake Texcoco, which surrounded what became Mexico City, and then sun-dried it into flat cakes. It gave Aztec messengers the energy they needed for their exhaustive marathon runs. They used it as an endurance booster and in treatment for various diseases.
Growing algae in Africa
Centuries later and halfway across the world, French botanist Pierre Dangeard studied the consumption of dihe, a spirulina cake consumed by the Kanembu tribe, near Lake Chad in Africa. Subsequent studies led to the first commercial spirulina production in the 1970s.
Today, the biggest concentrations are in Lake Texcoco, Lake Chad and the Great Rift Valley in Africa. Exceptionally protein rich — from 50 to 70% by weight — it is sold in health food stores around the world.
Mahesh Rangapura Veeramalliah and spirulina cultivation. (Photo courtesy of Mahesh Veeramalliah)
Spirulina is now grown in the United States, Mexico, India, Japan, Spain, Argentina and other countries.
One nonprofit organization, the Spirulina Foundation in India, has been training women in self-help groups across the country to cultivate spirulina.
Compared to soy — another high-protein food source — spirulina requires 20 times less land area to produce and uses one-third of the water. Moreover, during its production, spirulina captures carbon.
Beyond its protein concentration, spirulina contains all essential amino acids and other essential nutrients like carbohydrate and fats (including essential fatty acids like GLA), micronutrients — provitamin A, B1, B2, B3, B6, B9, B12, vitamin C and E — and minerals like zinc, magnesium, calcium, iron, manganese and selenium, as well as many useful antioxidants and phytochemicals.
Fighting malnutrition in India
In 2010, Mahesh Rangapura Veeramallaiah, an Indian biotechnology engineer, was looking for a thesis topic and became alarmed by a 42% malnutrition rate among preschool children in India. He started looking for solutions and came across spirulina.
Spirulina has been cultivated and used in India for more than four decades and was pioneered as a nutrition supplement for preschool children as early as 1991 in Chennai, the coastal city once known as Madras.
Convinced of spirulina’s ability to alleviate the problem of malnutrition, Veeramallaiah started the Spirulina Foundation at Tumkur, Karnataka at the age of 21, while he was still a university student.
He parlayed $200 from university competitions to start feeding spirulina to children at a nearby orphanage and in schools including a big residential school in Tumkur, his hometown. Each time, he noticed positive results with improvements in health and nutrition (weight gain, improved blood hemoglobin levels) and overall immunity. His success led to a corporate-funded and government-supported large-scale pilot called Mission against Malnutrition in which 30,000 children were given one and two-gram doses of spirulina fortified sugar for 180 days.
This pilot produced a 44% drop in malnutrition for those given one gram of spirulina and a remarkable 68% drop for children given two grams.
Since the first 1,000 days of life are extremely important to eliminate malnutrition, 15,000 pregnant and lactating mothers were also included in the intervention.
Hemoglobin and iron levels of the women’s group supplemented with one to two grams of spirulina were remarkably higher than placebo groups, thereby indicating reduction in anemia. This happened due to the high amounts of bioavailable iron in spirulina being easily absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract.
Science proves what the Aztecs knew.
Dr. Fehmida Visnegarwala, a public health researcher and holistic medicine advocate, was the research consultant on the spirulina pilot study.
“Spirulina has a vast prebiotic potential both for children, pregnant and lactating women over the first 1,000 days of life,” Visnegarwala said. “And spirulina must be supplemented to fight anemia which remains a global malnutrition concern and linked to pre-term, low-birth weight babies. All my family including myself take spirulina.”
The algae is inexpensive and cost effective, she said. In the pilot project, it cost only $10 to add spirulina to a six-month diet for each child.
One significant problem is that for all its benefits, spirulina tastes like algae. However, the good news is that spirulina is versatile and adaptable in many different recipes and products due to presence of a wide array of bioactive chemicals. Spirulina can be potentially used in various recipes — especially myriad Indian recipes. The repertoire of spirulina-enriched snack products includes yoghurt, crips, pasta and breads. Spirulina’s original habitat, Mexico, is reclaiming it by using it in a variety of recipes and foodstuffs.
Mahesh’s foundation has replaced the sugared spirulina powder with spirulina enriched Chikki, a traditional snack bar made of ground nuts and raw sugar.
Training mothers to fight malnutrition
Recognizing women as key stakeholders in the fight against malnutrition, the Foundation started training women’s self-help groups in spirulina cultivation and production of spirulina Chikki.
“It is a sustainable model because after one or two years of hand holding, when the groups are trained enough, we can leave the geography and the women can earn by selling the spirulina Chikki in the open market as well continue supplying to the nutrition program,” Mahesh said.
To date, the Spirulina Foundation has benefited about one million children in 18,000 childcare centres across three states and trained 18 self-help groups.
During the pandemic there was high demand for spirulina Chikki due to its immunity boosting properties. Mahesh’s foundation supplied the spirulina-enriched snack bar to Covid health workers in several states. Dr. Shouche also underscored the usefulness of spirulina supplementation in humanitarian emergencies since it can be grown in large quantities and can be dried and stored in the form of cakes.
According to Global Market Insights, the spirulina powder market size was valued at $462.2 million in 2022 and is estimated to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 7.7% in the next decade. The spirulina chocolates market size is expected to grow by more than $200 million, accelerating at a compound annual growth rate of over 10% through 2027, according to Technavio’s market analysis. Europe is expected to drive the demand for spirulina chocolates, accounting for more than a third of the global market’s growth over that period.
Up in space, both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have used spirulina as food for their astronauts due to its high nutritional content and antioxidant properties that helps keep astronauts fit and fed in space conditions.
Spirulina is also highly resistant to radiation found in outer space. In December 2017, ESA launched spirulina to the international space station. In a month’s time it recycled carbon dioxide into oxygen to produce edible proteins.
One of ESA’s partners has investigated spirulina’s genetic and biochemical properties and applied this knowledge to implement a pilot project in Congo, growing spirulina under sunlight in tubs of water with potassium bicarbonate and other ingredients that can be found locally.
The spirulina harvest, sufficient to feed a family of six, is dried and powdered, with 10 grams sprinkled on food each day enough to satisfy most dietary requirements and supplement the micronutrient deficient cassava-based diet of the region.
Back in space, under their Space Algae-2 program, NASA is seeking to grow serial cultures of spirulina to allow the organism to evolve in long-term spaceflight while assessing biological responses of its cells to spaceflights.
If they put it into chocolate, it would give new meaning to the idea of a Mars Bar.
Questions to consider:
- Where is the problem of child malnutrition most prevalent?
- Why is the European Space Agency growing spirulina in the Congo?
- Do you eat a nutritious diet? How could you make your means more nutritious?
Preety Sharma is a freelance journalist and an independent public health and development consultant currently based in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India. She is a fellow in global journalism at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.
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