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Spirulina: Health Food or Fraud?

For a health food, spirulina leaves a lot to be desired. It looks bad, is very expensive, and tastes terrible.

But people are buying this blue-green algae because they believe it will cure a litany of ills ranging from diabetes to depression. Since spirulina promoters don’t want to disappoint their customers, their risk of claims is growing daily.


Aside from being an energy booster, spirulina is said to treat obesity, is good for the skin, and is purported to be rich in vitamins and protein. Other conditions that supposedly respond to spirulina are alcoholism, herpes, diabetes, arthritis and cancer.

"A dose of one to two grams will supposedly cure everything from wrinkles and shortness of breath when climbing stairs to hives, asthma and white hair in young people," wrote Arnold Bender, vice president of the International Union of Food Science and Technology in Health or Hoax?

Long before spirulina became a favorite of the health food industry, it was eaten by North Africans and Mexicans centuries ago. The plant was discovered by the Western world in 1962. Since then, it has been cultivated in several countries, including Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, and the United States.


Part of man’s fascination with spirulina stems from the fact that the plant is a survivor. It grows almost by itself on lakes and ponds and doesn’t need any special care from the farmer.

Apparently, those who buy spirulina products hope they will be as strong as the plant. Unfortunately, most of the claims made for spirulina are baseless if not ridiculous.

Low protein source

For instance, it’s claimed that spirulina is a rich source of protein. True, the plant contains 62 - 68% protein but you’ll spend less by eating white fish which has 97% protein, chicken (80%) or white lean beef (79%). Moreover, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said most spirulina products provide only negligible amounts of protein when taken as directed by their labels. Some products advertised as spirulina have no spirulina at all.

Another sales pitch is that spirulina is packed with vitamins. But nutritionists say you’ll get more vitamins from broccoli and other green vegetables.

Dieters may be enticed by ads which say spirulina only has 3.9 calories per gram. They may be surprised to know that sugar contains 4 calories to the gram while bread has only 2 calories per gram. Both are cheaper than spirulina.


Because it has a considerable amount of vitamin B12, spirulina is usually recommended to strict vegetarians who can’t get this vitamin from plant sources. But Dr. Varro Tyler, a world renowned authority on herbs at Purdue University, said spirulina’s vitamin B12 content is due mainly to contamination with insect or animal fecal matter. This is not surprising since spirulina grows in open lakes and ponds and is not thoroughly washed before it’s dried.

In Health Schemes, Scams and Frauds, Dr. Stephen Barrett, a psychiatrist and board member of the National Council Against Health Fraud, Inc. said an FDA analysis of one popular product called BlueGreen Manna contained "15 whole or equivalent adult flies, 164 adult fly fragments, 41 whole or equivalent maggots, 59 maggot fragments, one ant, five ant fragments, one adult cicada, one cicada pupa, 763 insect fragments, nine ticks, four mites, 1,000 ostracods, two rat or mouse hairs, four bird feathers, six bird-feather barbules, and 10,500 water fleas." Some strains of spirulina also have toxins that can cause nausea, diarrhea and throat infections.

"In test animals injection of the toxic algae causes tumors, and larger doses can cause death within minutes. Batches of contaminated spirulina have been seized by the FDA. Since the toxins are not routinely tested for by all manufacturers, it would seem that using the algae is like playing Russian roulette," according to nutritionist Kurt Butler in A Consumer’s Guide to Alternative Medicine.

Spirulina promoters are apparently aware of this but tell their customers that these side effects are signs that their products are working and "cleansing" the body. In truth, you’re probably poisoning yourself without knowing it.

To protect consumers, US law enforcement agencies have taken actions against several multilevel companies making fraudulent claims about spirulina. One American distributor was fined $225,000 by California authorities for false and misleading advertising.

Here in the Philippines, little progress has been made against spirulina peddlers who are free to fool people. For your safety, ignore them. Until the health claims of spirulina are validated by the scientific community, don’t pin your hopes on this plant.

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