Ask the Diet Doctor: Spirulina's Supposed Superpowers
Q: Is spirulina really the amazing superfood it's touted to be?
A: Spirulina is a blue-green algae that can be taken as a supplement in either pill or powder form. It was also recently approved for use as a natural alternative to brilliant blue food dye-a nice choice for those with aversions to artificial food colorings. Naturally blue popsicles aside, four claims tend to be made about spirulina, but not all are accurate.
1. Claim: Spirulina is great source of protein.
It's true that spirulina contains 60 percent protein by weight and all the essential amino acids. (It's not as good a source as eggs or milk, but it's better than beans.) It also provides twice as much protein as carbohydrates, but the amount of both nutrients is negligible since only 2 grams is a relatively standard dose of spirulina, and that serving contains 1.2g protein-as much protein as in 0.03 ounces chicken breast. [Tweet this fact!]
2. Claim: Spirulina will help you lose fat.
It wouldn't be a superfood if it didn't help you lose weight, right? Despite being co-signed by Dr. Oz as "a miracle from the sea for your metabolism," there is no evidence at any level that would suggest spirulina will help you lose weight. This seems to be a claim purely created by marketers to push sales.
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3. Claim: Spirulina is an ideal source of vitamin B12 for people who eat a plant-based diet.
One nutritional concern for vegetarians and vegans is getting adequate levels of vitamin B12, a nutrient present primarily in animal products and some fortified foods such as cereal. Some plants, including spirulina, contain compounds similar vitamin B12 called pseudovitamin B12. But due to the complicated absorption process of vitamin B12, the effectiveness of these plant-based pseudovitamin B12 compounds has been questioned. Furthermore the ability of algae-derived B12, as in spirulina, to improve B12 status in humans has not been convincingly shown clinically. If you eat a diet devoid of animal products, it is important to find vitamin B12 from other fortified sources and not to rely only on spirulina. [Tweet this tip!]
4. Claim: Spirulina will help with allergies.
Finally, here's an area where the health claims may prove correct. Potentially due to its anti-inflammatory properties, spirulina appears to be an effective treatment for allergies. One study found that 2g daily decreased levels of the pro-inflammatory cytokine IL-4 in people who suffered from nasal allergies. Other researchers looked at the long-term clinical effects and found that taking 2g a day led to significant reductions in symptoms of nasal allergies for the six-month duration of the study, with the effect growing stronger over time. So, assuming you commit to taking it every day, spirulina can help.