What's it all about, Algae?

Spirulina: a boost, but not a panacea

It's green, smells fishy, and a month's supply costs as much as 20 bottles of aspirin, but spirulina still sells like hotcakes, albeit teal-colored ones.

The microscopic algae known as spirulina, or as the Sloan Kettering medical website refers to it, pond scum, has been purported to treat viral infections, lower cholesterol, cure cancer, and boost energy levels.

Alas, all that glitters is not green. According to Sloan Kettering, spirulina apparently has anti-viral properties (although only in animal studies), curbs the growth of a type of oral cancer, and contains a fatty acid, gamma-linoleic, that can prevent accumulation of cholesterol. It is also high in protein and B-12, a plus for vegetarians and vegans. The dietary supplement won't help you lose weight, cure cancer, or treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, although the Internet is teeming with claims to the contrary.

So how do you eat it? Since some people find its smell, appearance, and fishy taste a bit off-putting - it's really not that bad, just, shall we say, distinctive - manufacturers effectively conceal it in various concoctions, including Spiru-TEIN, a powdered shake mix that can be used to make chocolate malts. Algae and chocolate never tasted so good.

During my spirulina phase, I color-coordinated it with other green foods: pea soup, rice and spinach, or guacamole. A friend sprinkled it over a split baked potato, with all the fixin's.

Like any food, problems arise if the growing environment is contaminated. You wouldn't want to eat spirulina grown in water tainted with mercury, runoff, or a harmful algae species known as microcystis. In the 1980s, a Mexican spirulina company closed because the algae was growing in Lake Texcoco, which unfortunately is near Mexico City, one of the world's most polluted cities.

Since it's difficult to guarantee the purity of the global water supply, spirulina farmers - the bulk of them in Hawaii, Oregon, California, Asia, and Africa - cultivate it in specially controlled ponds. Spirulina farmers feed the water with additional nutrients, including potassium, nitrogen, and iron. At harvest time, spirulina is pumped along with its water into the factory where the algae is filtered out and then quick-dried to preserve it in a powdered form.

You can buy powdered spirulina in bulk or for those who prefer a diet of pills, in tablet form. It is regulated by FDA as a dietary supplement, but is not required to be manufactured under specific conditions. Being cheap, I always buy it in bulk, but you can ask the folks in the vitamin section or your spirulina-addicted friends for recommended bottled brands, such as the California-based company Earthrise.

A gentle way to introduce your palate to spirulina is via this recipe for avocado dressing, which I tried after reading a New Zealand website devoted to spirulina. Dump the ingredients in a blender and try the dressing over a bed of organic greens for a nutritious, color-coordinated appetizer.

2/3 c water
1 ripe avocado
Juice of 1 lemon
2 T apple cider vinegar
4 cloves garlic
1 t ginger
1/2 t cumin powder
1 T miso
2 t spirulina powder

By Lisa Sorg

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