Every morning I put about 30 tiny chorella tablets on top of my morning smoothie.
Then, later in the day, I often swallow another 30-50 tiny spirulina tablets pre-workout.
Regardless of whether you think that us land-dwelling creatures at some point evolved from ocean-dwelling life (a belief espoused by my previous podcast guest Jack Kruse to encourage people spend time in the cold and to eat more seafood), it can’t be denied that fish, turtles, and millions of other large and small inhabitants of water rely on one extremely dense nutrition source for sustenance of life…
…algae – particularly from spirulina and chlorella sources.
One tab of algae about the size of the one pictured above gives you the same nutrition as eating salads all day long.
Those fish are pretty darn smart, huh?
But algae isn’t just something that our ocean dwelling neighbors can eat and thrive upon.
Algae has been used by tens of millions of people in Asia for over 50 years, and even Olympic athletes and NASA astronauts have relied on algae for decades as a way to pack a lot of nutrients into a very small volume of food, probably since algae contains 1,000 times more nutrition than anything else in the world (or if you’d like to think about it this way, one gram of algae – about the equivalent in a tiny tablet – contains the nutritional equivalent of 1,000 grams of fruits and vegetables).
Yet, for some strange reason, although it meets all FDA requirements and has been sold in the USA for four decades, algae remains virtually unknown to mainstream America.
Seriously – ask yourself – when was the last time you thought of extremely nutrient dense foods like steak, nut butter, blueberries, kale and then pictured algae along in there with those other oft-mentioned foods?
Fact is, you’re missing out on a big nutritional hack if you’re not eating some form of algae. So today, I’m going to tell you exactly how to find and use algae in your diet, and no, it does not involve sticking your head into fish tank and gulping down slimy green plants.
OK here we go…
What Is Algae And Why Is It Good For Me?
There are two basic forms of algae that you can easily get your hands on at health food stores, on the internet, or in supplements: chlorella and spirulina.
Chlorella is a single-celled freshwater micro-algae that contains the highest known quality of chlorophyll found in a nature. Chlorophyll has a chemical structure very similar to hemoglobin, and because of these properties, it can carry oxygen around in the blood and increase your red blood cell count. There is even recent research that shows that a combination of chlorophyll in your bloodstream and exposure to sunlight can allow you to produce ATP without actually eating any calories.
Compared to other commercial sources of chlorophyll like wheat grass, barley, and alfalfa (all popular ingredients in “greens” supplements), chlorella has five times more chlorophyll than wheat grass, twelve times more than barley and nearly ten times more than alfalfa. Because of it’s extreme photosynthetic efficiency from the high levels of chlorophyll, chlorella is a very attractive potential food and energy source (it is also high in protein and other essential nutrients, and when dried, is about 45% protein, 20%fat, 20% carbohydrate, 5% fiber, and 10% minerals and vitamins).
Interestingly, chlorella also seems to be programmed for ultimate survival and replication, with a very unique ability to nearly quadruple in quantity every 20 hours, which is something that no other plant or substance on earth can do. This unique ability exists because chlorella is 3% RNA and 0.3% DNA by weight (which means that it contains some of the highest RNA/DNA nucleic acid components of any other food on the planet).
What this means for you is that in your own body, these nucleic acids (RNA and DNA) are responsible for cellular renewal, growth and repair – and these same nucleic acids significantly decline with age – which means that not having enough nucleic acid on board leads to aging, a weakened immune system and an inability to recovery quickly.
Chlorella, by virtue of its superior RNA and DNA content, could assist in slowing this aging process and preventing the onset of many chronic, degenerative illnesses associated with getting older (and these same hyperspeed repair mechanisms help you to recovery from workouts with lightning speed).
But that’s not the whole story on chlorella.
The indigestible cellulose of chlorella’s cell wall can attract and bind with heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium and help to remove them from your body. These natural detoxification properties mean that chlorella is a good way to reverse the damage from environmental pollutants and toxins found in many foods. In addition to leaching metals, chlorella can assist with the removal of hydrocarbon pesticides, herbicides and insecticides, and can also have protective effect on the liver, your body’s valuable toxin filter.
Now let’s look at chlorella’s close cousin: spirulina.
Spirulina is also a microalgae, but it’s actually higher than chlorella in protein content, at about 60% protein, with all the essential amino acids. Although spirulina’s slightly reduced amounts of methionine, cysteine and lysine make it (or chlorella) not quite as complete a protein source as meat, eggs or milk, algae is still highly superior to any other plant protein, like legumes or grains.
Spirulina is also about 7% lipid, and high in gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), along with other essential fatty acids, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). For a vegan or vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish, or has a hard time getting enough fats or proteins, this is really good news – an ocean chock full of what you need to keep your brain and nervous system from deteriorating.
And spirulina is a rich source of vitamins, including vitamin B (but not B12, so you’ll still need another source of that), vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, and minerals like like potassium, calcium, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, sodium and zinc.
Compared to any other plant, spirulina also has the highest concentration of antioxidants in the world, the highest concentration of beta carotene in the world, is a great source of fuel for the good bacteria in your gut, and has the second highest concentration of omega 3 fatty acids (second only to mother’s milk). On top of that, it has over 40 vitamins and minerals despite having only one calorie per serving.
A small amount of spirulina not only increases physical energy and mental focus, but the nutrient density can replace the need for taking large amounts of other supplements, and both spirulina and chlorella algae sources are safe for children. Spirulina’s high concentration of antioxidants and essential fatty acids contribute to heart and brain health, normalize blood pressure, correct anemia, normalize healthy cholesterol levels, and even reduce cancer risk. Most importantly, spirulina can do this without caffeine, sugar, chemicals or a prescription.
Spirulina contains over forty vitamins and minerals and has over 60% protein, the highest concentration of protein by weight in the world and over three times that of steak. Spirulina is also hailed as the answer to world hunger by The United Nations, and endorsed by NASA, who says that spirulina has approximately one thousand times more nutrition than other fruit or vegetable.
The protein in spirulina contains eighteen of the twenty amino acids, including all eight essential amino acids your body can’t produce, making it a complete protein. The aminos are unstructured, which means they are quickly and easily absorbed. Spirulina also boasts more beta carotene than carrots, more iron than spinach; more antioxidants than blueberries, more chlorophyll than liquid chlorophyll and has a nutritional profile that is almost identical to breastmilk, nature’s other perfect food.
So even though chlorella is high in protein, spirulina is even higher in protein, and also an excellent dietary source for muscle recovery and repair, amino acids and fatty acids (especially if you’re vegetarian or vegan and don’t eat meats or have a hard time getting enough fats – which is why I think it’s crazy that algae isn’t discussed in articles like this: Can A Vegan Diet Fuel A High Performance Athlete?).
A History Of Algae
Despite it's enormous nutrient density, algae is no overnight success. Although it was among the first plant life on earth, algae didn’t really attract much attention until 1890, when Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck began to study chlorella algae and grow it in his lab.
A few years later, German scientists discovered that algae has an extremely high concentration of edible protein, a discovery that later led to Otto Heinrich Warburg winning the Nobel Prize for his work on photosynthesis in chlorella. The German discovery also ultimately proved to be somewhat lifesaving, when World War I left them without food or livestock and the German Government used chlorella algae to feed their starving nation.
After the war, algae seemed to be forgotten as a food source, and interest in it didn’t resurface again until World War II, when the Hiroshima bomb destroyed Japan’s food supply and the US Government sent chlorella algae along with other food supplies to help them avoid starvation. The chlorella was a desperately needed source of protein, and to everyone’s surprise, it also seemed to alleviate some of the effects of radiation poisoning. The US Government took note of this, and in the late 1940’s began extensive research on algae. Algae’s ability to assist with remediation of radiation poisoning has since been confirmed and used at other radiation disasters including Chernobyl.
By the early 1950’s, algae’s nutritional profile began to draw significant attention in the USA. Even NASA threw their support behind algae and announced their intention to grow it in space. Algae’s nutritional pedigree was further solidified when The Carnegie Institute declared it was the answer to America’s growing nutrition crisis and recommended algae be put into production immediately for mass consumption. The only problem was that algae had never been produced for mass consumption, so The Carnegie Institute funded the world’s first pilot plant to do it. However, the algae proved too complicated to grow and the pilot plant was shut down after just one year.
But the algae story doesn’t end there. The Rockefeller Foundation stepped in and offered financial support to the Japanese so they could learn how to grow algae for mass consumption. The Japanese accepted the challenge and, although it took them ten years, by the early 1960’s algae production in Japan was a vibrant industry and well on its way to becoming a multi-billion dollar industry.
Spirulina and chlorella algae are now firmly entrenched in Japan’s food supply. Algae’s nutritional profile and agricultural efficiency, on an acre-per-acre basis, provides two hundred times more protein than cattle while using one tenth of the water, making it an eco-friendly and sustainable food crop.
Algae is still relatively unheard of in the USA, but over the last fifty years, it has grown into a substantial industry in Asia, where tens of millions of folks take algae every day instead of vitamins. Asian athletes use it to improve their performance, and entire Asian countries use it as a source of protein and to increase their energy, focus, vitality, remove toxins, speed recovery and prevent hangovers.
Algae is not only an important crop in Asia, but it has now quickly become one of the most studied food sources in the world. There are over 100,000 scientific reports documenting algae's hundreds of benefits and nutritional properties.
So What Algae Is Best?
Now wait a minute.
Even if you’re drooling over the benefits of algae, you can’t just go rushing to your local bargain supplements outlet or bulk foods website to grab just any old algae source.
When it comes to algae, if you’re serious about what you put into your body, the source matters.
So here are 8 very important considerations for you if you don’t want to waste money on a bunch of completely ineffective algae – you should read and follow these 8 tips if you don’t want to do more harm than good to your body in the process of introducing algae into your diet.
1. Get certified, organic non-genetically modified (non GMO) algae. Purity is important with this stuff, and you don’t want to be eating genetic mutants that have been dosed repeatedly in herbicides and pesticides. There is a wide variance in the quality of spirulina and chlorella algae. Not all algae is grown using the same level of quality control.
2. Don’t get algae from spirulina and chlorella companies that put “fillers” in their algae. This means you would need 10-20 times the algae necessary to actually get a positive effect – and that amount with completely flip your stomach. Just get 100% pure spirulina and chlorella. Similarly, do not get chlorella or spirulina in any kind of gel cap, especially if you are vegetarian or vegan, since most of those gel caps are made from fish oil. In most cases, you have no idea what other fillers are in those gelatin capsules.
3. Just like beef, there are different grades of spirulina and chlorella. The lower quality grades have fewer nutrients, lower concentration of protein and less potency, and once again, you would need 10-20 times the normal amount of an inferior grade of algae to get any good effect.
4. The country of origin where spirulina and chlorella are grown is very important. For example, many suppliers of spirulina in China have been found to falsify their paper work and claims about being organic (in fact, there are a lot of products that come out of China that are falsely certified). Yet a company that just wants to make sales will usually go with the cheapest suppliers – and often that means they are buying the algae from China. This is very dangerous because you really don’t know what you are getting, and you could be harming your health more than helping your health if you buy cheaper spirulina or chlorella that was grown in China – and may in fact contain not only a high concentration of contaminants, but also a lower grade of algae.
5. Similarly, due to the ongoing radiation problems from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, be careful with any spirulina or chlorella that was grown in Japan. Spirulina and chlorella are grown hydroponically (in water), so any radiation could potentially be in the Japanese water in small amounts.
6. Be careful with your source, because extraction techniques vary when it comes to algae. One technique that can be used to “crack” the exterior shell of chlorella (so that the nutrients can be absorbed by your body) is via passing the chlorella through a sound chamber and using sound wave vibrations for extraction. This is a relatively new technique and preserves all the nutrition in the chlorella. This is in contrast to all the Japanese and most other growers of chlorella in Asia, who use a 50 year old technique in which they tumble the chlorella with glass beads to crack it. This method is dangerous – primarily because the chlorella can be contaminated by the lead in the glass and also because the process produces high amounts of heat, which damages the nutritional quality of the chlorella.
7. Do not use spirulina or chlorella that has been exposed to heat drying. This is very important because heat damages the active enzymes in the algae, and prevents it from being a truly “raw” food. A process called air drying involves shooting the algae into the air and allowing it to fall into piles of powder, which are then packed into the small “pellets” or “bits”, and this process is considered low heat and much safer.
8. Pay attention to the algae preservation methods. For example, algae can easily and safely be stored in vacuum packed, non-transparent bags or containers, which have a stable shelf life of over two years. These type of containers can also be specially coated to protect the algae from UV rays. This is important because algae has the highest concentration of chlorophyll on the planet (which is what makes it green) but chlorophyll is very light sensitive. As soon as light starts to hit the algae, the nutrients in the chlorophyll start to lose their potency. So if your spirulina or chlorella is coming in a transparent container or bag, that is not a good thing.
How To Use Algae During Exercise
So now we get to the million dollar question: can you actually get any benefits by eatiing algae during exercise, such as marathons, triathlons, obstacle races, tennis matches, hunting, or any other form of physical activity?
I asked Catharine Arnston, the Founder and CEO of ENERGYbits, about the feedback she's gotten from athletes who have experimented with using algae during competition. She supplied me with the following fun facts.
1) Algae is a slow-release form of energy. Algae sources such as spirulina provide steady energy compared to fructose or maltodextrin-based carbohydrate gels, which can provide a short burst of energy followed by a crash. Research shows endurance athletes can perform just fine using fuel sources that provide steady energy, and I also wrote about this topic in my article on fat-based energy gels.
2) Algae does not create stomach distress. Sugar and caffeine can tend to irritate the stomach when an athlete uses them during a race or workout. This is because the blood flow normally used for digestion is supplying oxygen and nutrients to the athlete’s muscles. High calorie compounds low in nutrient density can enter the gastrointestinal tract undigested where bacteria can ferment the undigested matter and where blood flow must be diverted for digestion. This can lead to fermentation, gas, cramps and an urge to empty the bowels. Algae does not contain ingredients that irritate the stomach and all the nutrients in spirulina are quickly absorbed, so algae does not contribute to indigestion or GI distress during exercise.
3) Algae has an extremely high concentration of protein (64%). Most other energy products designed for exercise (such as gels) either contain no protein or less protein (see chart below). In contrast, protein from algae is exclusively in the form of unstructured amino acids. It contains eighteen of the twenty amino acids, including the eight essential aminos your body cannot produce, making it a complete protein. Since spirulina does not have a cellulose wall, these amino acids are absorbed quickly and enter the bloodstream instantly. The high concentration of B vitamins in spirulina also help convert the amino acids to glucose, along with assisting in muscle repair and recovery post-workout.
4) Algae contains all nine B Vitamins. A lack of B Vitamins can potentially to poor athletic performance and a decreased ability to build or repair muscle. If other energy products contain B Vitamins, they tend to be in lower amounts and are usually artificially produced and not easily absorbed.
5) Algae contains the highest concentration of iron in the world – up to 48 times more iron than raw spinach and 28 times more iron than beef liver. Insufficient amounts of iron reduce oxygen uptake and can lead to anemia-like symptoms and less oxygen, which can lower athletic performance. Most other energy products such as gels or sports drinks do not contain iron.
6) Algae provide naturally occurring nitric oxide, a vasodilator that opens blood vessels and facilitates blood flow to improve athletic performance. As the blood flow increases, more oxygen is delivered to the athlete’s muscles and brain, fatigue is reduced and focus is enhanced. Other energy products such as gels and sports drinks do not contain this type of natural nitric oxide.
7) Algae can increase mental focus and decrease cognitive fatigue due to many factors, including nitric oxide as well as a high concentration of Essential Fatty Acids (EFA) such as Omega-3. Fish has long been referred to as a helpful brain food due to its high concentration of Omega-3, but a little known fact is that fish don’t create Omega-3: they get it from eating algae. The brain in particular is almost 60% fat and requires EFA's to perform optimally.. Virtually no other energy gels or sports drinks contain such high amount of EFA's.
8) Algae is alkaline, and an alkaline diet can improve an athlete’s performance. When athletes perform, they release high amounts of free radicals and hydrogen ions from lactic acid, which can cause a net acidic effect. The acidity strips the negative charge from the outside of the hemoglobin, causing it the hemoglobin to clump. This clumping not only reduces the hemoglobin’s ability to carry iron or oxygen, but also prevents the hemoglobin from fitting into the body’s 19 billion+ microscopic capillaries. The net result is an athlete’s muscles and brain are deprived of vital oxygen, so performance potentially decreases and muscle fatigue increases. Alkaline compounds can help restore the pH balance to an athlete’s blood so that this clumping does not occur. The high concentration of iron in spirulina can further improve performance by increasing the amount of oxygen in the hemoglobin.
9) Algae has the highest known concentration of antioxidants and an ORAC value 100 times higher than cherries. Antioxidants are necessary to fight free radicals, which can cause long term damage to cells and DNA, both of which contribute to decreased energy and rapid aging. Although antioxidants have not conclusively been found to drastically improve a professional athlete’s performance, many weekend warriors have seen some benefits. Algae contains a higher concentration of antioxidants than most other energy products, all in a form that is naturally occurring, such as beta carotene.
10) Algae is an eco-friendly, sustainable crop. Algae releases oxygen and removes carbon dioxide from the air as it is growing, and requires very little land or water to grow, making it one of the most eco-friendly, efficient crops in the world. It produces two hundred times more protein per acre than beef while using only one tenth of the water. And since it is a crop that is grown in fresh water tanks, algae is a more sustainable, eco-friendly source of Omega-3 fatty acids than fish oil. It preserves ocean wildlife and doesn’t damage the delicate ocean eco-system in the same way as overfishing, making it an ethical sports nutrition compound too.
In my discussion with her, Catharine also noted that athletes add in too many bars, gels, sports drinks or chews, primarily because they don’t believe that algae can provide them with enough energy (because most athletes still believe that calories are the only substance that can provide energy). But most athletes find they are able to rely on 1/2 to 1/4 of their normal calorie intake when consuming a small handful of spirulina each hour, primarily due to factors such as fatty acids, nitric oxide, B-vitamins, amino acids and chlorophyll – rather than simply sugar.
She recommends you swallow spirulina algae bits with water because most people do not like the green taste or the chewy consistency (the chewiness is due to the high concentration of protein and Essential Fatty Acids). On the other hand, chlorella algae bits (more of a recovery algae) are not chewy and many athletes like to eat them by the handful like nuts. Some people also like to grind them up and add them to a smoothie, or toss them into a salad, yogurt or spoonful of peanut butter.
For basic algae usage during exercise, Catharine recommends taking 30-50 algae bits (preferably ENERGYbits, which are the spirulina form) 15-30 minutes before any workout, run or race and then 15- 30 more ENERGYbits every hour, or whenever you feel fatigued. You can also take 30-50 RECOVERYbits (the chlorella form) before a race or big workout if you want the chlorella to start buffering lactic acid while you are racing, although most athletes take RECOVERYbits post race. 30-50 tablets may sound like a huge amount, but remember that each tablet is very tiny, and a handful is actually quite easy to swallow (here are a few videos that show you how).
Finally, I’ve been asked before if any of this stuff can be toxic.
Fact is, toxicological studies of the effects of algae (primarily spirulina) consumption on humans and animals, including feeding as much as 800mg/kg, and replacing up to 60% of protein intake with algae sources, have shown no toxic effects, and in contrast, algae intake has actually been found to prevent damage caused by toxins that affect the heart, liver, kidneys, neurons, eyes, ovaries, DNA, and testicles. Dozens of human clinical studies have shown no harmful effects of algae supplementation.
But a word of warning: no matter which source of algae you choose, if you get chewable spirulina or chlorella tablets, they will turn your mouth temporarily green. But you can easily rinse with water if you want to get your adorable, kissable face back.
Do you have questions, comments or feedback about how to use algae? Leave your thoughts below. You can also click here and use code BEN to save 10% on any of the algae products I personally use, including spirulina ENERGYbits and chlorella RECOVERYbits.