Good source of beta-carotene, but no miracle food

Spirulina: good source of beta-carotene, but no miracle food

Q. I’ve heard that spirulina (blue-green algae) is a super food that can replace a lot of foods in my diet plus alleviate fatigue and stress, improve my memory and aid digestion. Is this true?

A. no food we know of is that super. Spirulina–also known as blue-green algae, plant plankton or pond scum–has been a food of natives of Asia, Africa and Mexico for many years. In this country, spirulina is a big seller in health food stores where, as you point out, it is touted as a super food, claiming to provide “enhanced vitality.” Spirulina is also hailed as a treatment for a host of conditions including anemia, diabetes, hair loss, ulcers, and as an aid to weight loss.

Nutritionally speaking, spirulina is a rich source of carotenoids, particularly beta-carotene, and trace minerals including zinc. The exact nutrient profile varies depending on the species. Commercial products do not typically identify the species, although Spirulina maxima, cultivated in Mexico, and Spirulina platensis, cultivated in California, are popular. Most 500 milligram supplements of spirulina provide roughly 1,000 to 2,000 IU (International Units) of vitamin A as betacarotene per tablet. A typical spirulina dose is four to six tablets per day.

Spirulina is also one of the best plant sources of protein. But while some past analyses showed abundant amounts of vitamin B 12 in spirulina, most of the compounds identified as vitamin B 12 are thought to be B 12-like compounds that have little or no B 12 activity.

While none of the disease prevention claims for spirulina has been proven, a new study conducted in India using Spirulina fusiformis has shown it may help prevent a type of oral cancer common in tobacco chewers.

Researchers believe a member of the carotenoid family or several carotenoids acting together are responsible for the cancer-fighting action of spirulina. But these carotenoids may not be unique to spirulina. Similar findings have come from studies in which beta-carotene supplements were given.

There’s no doubt spirulina offers beneficial nutrients, notably protein, carotenoids and some trace minerals, but all these can be obtained more enjoyably–and economically–from other foods.

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