"Spirulina is galactic: funky, savory, and loaded with protein," says chef Fernando Aciar of Feel Food in NYC. Perhaps that's why he loves to add it to an avocado shake. The vitamin-rich algae, which has a concentrated, slightly sulphuric seaweed-like flavor, first started gaining traction in health food stores in the '70s. But these days, you can head to the corner Jamba Juice and order it in your smoothie. Interested in trying it for yourself? Read on.
What You Need to Know
Spirulina is a type of algae, like seaweed, that grows in freshwater environments like lakes, rivers, and ponds. The commercial stuff you can purchase at health food stores comes from spirulina that's farmed by manufacturers like the U.S.-based Nutrex and Earthrise, which cultivate spirulina in contained pools. Commercial spirulina is most often sold as a deep green-colored powder or a tablet as a dietary supplement. But it's also used as an ingredient in packaged health food snacks and drinks like Vivapura's Spirulina Crunchies and GT'sMulti-Green Kombucha.
So how does spirulina go from algae to powder? Nutrex founder Dr. Gerry Cysewski explains microalgae from the surrounding farm is put into large contained pools that each contain 150,000 total gallons of liquid and nutrients to cultivate the spirulina until it's ready to harvest. Once mature, the spirulina gets pumped out of the pond into a harvesting facility where the algae gets strained out with stainless steel screens. Then the strained spirulina algae paste is laid out and triple-washed with potable water before it goes into a drying vessel that converts it into powder form.
How to Eat It
The two most common forms of commercially available spirulina are powder and tablets. It's also an ingredient in some protein and energy-boosting powder mixes. You can stir a small spoonful of spirulina powder into a glass of water or juice and drink it straight, or you can add some to a smoothie. Be warned: Just a small amount of deeply-pigmented spirulina will change the color of your drink into a deep blue-green, almost black. (Keep a glass of water handy to prevent a blue-green teeth situation.) You might also find spirulina in some dessert offerings at health food restaurants—it's sometimes added to raw chocolate brownies or truffle-style energy balls often made with puréed dates, nuts, coconut, and other natural ingredients.
Some people find spirulina's slightly savory, sea vegetable flavor off-putting, though its intense earthiness can help offset a sweet smoothie or juice. If you go the smoothie route, balance out the overall flavor by combining the spirulina powder with sweet fruits like bananas, pineapple, and mango. If you prefer juice, try stirring it into a naturally sweet orange or pineapple juice. The one thing you don't want to do is try a spoonful of powder by itself. "It would be like taking a teaspoon of flour," Cysewski says.
Spirulina boasts protein, iron, amino acids, and antioxidants like beta-carotene. Lots of spirulina producers will market it as a rich source of plant-based protein, although this can be a little misleading. Although spirulina typically contains around 60 percent protein by weight, the truth is you'd have to be eating it in large quantities to ingest the same amount of protein you'd get from, say, 4 ounces of beef. Many spirulina eaters report increased energy, and although Nutrex hasn't conducted a ton of research around this. Cysewski says he does recommend avoiding spirulina before bedtime.
Since spirulina's growing environment can affect its nutritional quality and taste, it's worth doing a little research into where a particular brand sources its product. That could be as simple as looking up information on a brand's website. A significant portion of the world's spirulina production comes out of China or India, some of which is exported to the U.S., but Cysewski says it tends to have a lower nutritional profile and potential heavy metal and bacterial contamination. If you're unsure where your spirulina is coming from, locate a customer service number and ask.
How to Store
Store open bottles or bags of spirulina powder and tablets in the refrigerator. Spirulina doesn't have any oils that could potentially go rancid over time, but the amount of oxygen-sensitive nutrients will diminish the longer it sits after opening. Consume it within a few months of opening.
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