Spirulina is one of a huge number of items that walk the line between supplement and supposed “superfood”. Here we delve into what it is, whether it is vegan, what benefits it is claimed to offer and, of course, the key question, whether or not spirulina is something that is good for vegans to consume.
Is Spirulina Vegan?
The title question may well seem to presuppose that spirulina is indeed vegan. However, as anyone who has read any of our Is It Vegan? articles will know, few issues in this regard are clear cut. Vegans invariably need to be on their guard when it comes to what they put in their bodies if they want to be sure of avoiding the strange and seemingly ubiquitous use of animal-based items.
Check the Label
Things are relatively simple when it comes to spirulina though and we can say that yes, spirulina is vegan. There are a couple of things to note here though. Firstly, and most importantly, whilst spirulina itself is vegan, that isn’t to say that all commercially available formulations of it are fine for vegans to consume.
Given its status as a health food and its links with veganism and vegetarianism we suspect that the vast majority are. However, it isn’t impossible that some spirulina-based products could include some animal product or other. For example, if you are taking spirulina in tablet or capsule form, gelatine might have been used. Check the label because if it isn’t marked as at least vegetarian you might want to investigate further (assuming you aren’t consuming pure spirulina); if it is labelled vegetarian but not vegan it might also be wise to check if you want to be absolutely certain.
The Algae Conundrum
The second point to consider is that whilst spirulina is typically considered to be algae, and many may view that as similar to seaweed and therefore a plant, it is actually classed as a cyanobacteria. That means it is alive but in fact spirulina is neither plant nor animal. For that matter, it is also not a fungus like yeast or the raw material from which Quorn is made.
It is easy for vegans and non-vegans to get confused with living organisms, such as yeast and, in this case, bacteria. However, when it comes to bacteria, whilst they are alive and can move there is no doubt whatsoever that they are non-sentient beings and do not feel pain. Ultimately though, the key point is that they are not part of the animal kingdom. It should also be remembered that we breathe in bacteria, ingest it from our hands and on food and it is abundant in a range of vegan foods, such as tempeh, sourdough bread, and fermented and pickled vegetables.
What Is Spirulina?
We have rather given the game away when it comes to this question but in case you skimmed straight here, spirulina is, depending on how you want to look at things:
- A Food Supplement – Many add spirulina to their diets
- A Superfood – Its range of purported health benefits mean some class it as a superfood
- Vegan – In its pure form, it is 100% vegan
- Bacteria – It belongs to domain bacteria
- Cyanobacteria – More specifically, it belongs to the phylum called Cyanobacteria
- Blue-Green Algae – The cyanobacteria phylum is sometimes called this and if describing what spirulina is in a simple sense, most people would say it is a type of algae
- Food Dye – Its colour can be extracted and used as a natural blue dye in confectionary or other products
Should Vegans Take Spirulina?
There is no set, measurable definition of what constitutes a superfood and nor is it a medical or nutritional term but the Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being”. As with most so-called superfoods, many bold claims are made about spirulina. These include, for example, that it can help you lose weight, increase a person’s rate of metabolism, lower cholesterol, fight cancer, prevent heart disease, improve mental health, help with diabetes, and lower both blood pressure and cholesterol.
Perhaps the question should be: “what can’t spirulina cure?” Except that as with many miracle cures, whilst some studies can be found that might at least partially back-up these claims, almost all of the research is questionable at best. That isn’t to say that spirulina doesn’t possess these benefits but merely that before we can be sure of most of them, a lot more in-depth research would be needed.
Spirulina is Packed with Nutrients
One thing that is beyond question, however, is that the nutrient profile of spirulina is exceptional. In terms of macronutrients, spirulina, which is usually dried, powdered algae, contains approximately the following:
Composition of Spirulina
- 55-70% Protein
- 10-25% Carbohydrates
- 5-20% Fat
The precise figures vary depending on the specific product. The figures above represent the percentage of calories from each macro, with 100g of powdered spirulina typically having around 300-380 calories (although again there is some variation within this range between products).
It is high in protein, so is another great vegan protein option and also contains around 3.6g of fibre per 100g. The fats are a decent mix, with good levels of polyunsaturated lipids, it is low in sugar and contains a range of different proteins (and is in fact a complete protein as it contains all of the essential amino acids our bodies are unable to make themselves).
Micronutrients in Spirulina
However, it is in terms of the micronutrients where spirulina really excels. We will look at antioxidants in a little more detail later, but for now let us focus on the huge range of vitamins and minerals this algae packs in. Spirulina contains a fabulous range of both vitamins and minerals and is especially high in the following:
- Riboflavin (Vitamin B2) – 100g provides more than double the RNI
- Thiamine (Vitamin B1) – 100g provides around double the RNI
- Copper – A 15g serving provides approximately the required daily intake
- Iron – 100g provides double (and according to some sources much more) of the RNI
- Manganese – No UK RNI but 100g delivers around 100% of the US recommended intake
- Niacin (Vitamin B3) – Around two thirds of RNI in 100g
Where discussed, the recommended nutrient intake (RNI) or “required daily intake” are taken from the British Nutrition Foundation. Figures quoted are for adults, using the higher value for men or women where one exists.
On top of all that, spirulina also contains very worthwhile amounts of vitamins B5, E and K, choline, magnesium and potassium. In addition, it boasts not insignificant levels of vitamin A, vitamin B6, folate, calcium, phosphorous, selenium and zinc. Not bad for some algae!
Issues with Nutrient Values
As spirulina is a natural product the precise amounts of each nutrient can vary. However, a bigger issue is that as this remains a relatively niche product and so there appears to be a lot of disagreement on precise values.
The Food Standards Agency in the UK states that foods can be labelled using “generally established and accepted data” but none seems to exist for spirulina as yet in the UK. The US Department of Agriculture helpfully provides access to all the data they hold and many websites, including everyone’s favourite online encyclopaedia, have used this information when discussing spirulina.
However, the sums simply don’t add up using those figures, which may or may not be due to some of them being taken from 1984 and others being added more recently. The USDA claims that powdered spirulina (which, incidentally, it erroneously lists as seaweed!) contains 290 calories per 100g. However, it also states that 100g contains 57.47g of protein and 7.72g of fat. At four and nine calories per gram respectively, that alone comes to 299.36 calories and that’s before we even get to the 20+ grams of carbs.
Clearly something is incorrect here, which makes us loathe to use the values they claim for the other micronutrients. Similar (albeit not quite as pronounced) problems are found with the NHS-utilised NutraCheck site. The USDA provides some slightly more up to date information for branded spirulina products and whilst this is better, we still have serious doubts over its accuracy.
As such we have left many of the values we mention quite open, suggesting a range typically based on an approximate average of a variety of sources. For most people, the precise quantities won’t be crucial but if you are looking to follow a very controlled eating plan, please consult the manufacturer of the spirulina you are using.
Does Spirulina Really Fight Cancer, Etc.?
There are so many claims associated with spirulina and nutritional research is such a dynamic area that it would take us too long to give in-depth analysis about all the possible benefits this supplement might have. However, let us briefly look at some of the key claims.
Spirulina & Weight-Loss – Looks Promising
Spirulina has often been linked with weight-loss and it seems these claims may have some truth to them. The precise mechanism of how this might work is not currently known but it is thought spirulina may boost the metabolism. It is also useful because it is very nutrient-dense, meaning that for very few calories, those consuming it can obtain a lot of the vitamins and minerals needed for health.
A Meta study reported in ScienceDirect concluded that “Spirulina supplementation significantly reduces body weight, especially in obese individuals.” Whilst, as ever, further research may be needed, ScienceDirect is a reputable platform for peer-reviewed academic literature and so this is certainly encouraging.
Spirulina Could Feed the World – Looks Promising
Spirulina was investigated by the European Space Agency as a possible astronaut food for Mars exploration in part due to its exceptional nutritional density. This same property means it could be hugely beneficial in fighting malnutrition in some of the poorest countries in the world.
As well as being packed with vitamins and minerals, spirulina is also ecologically sound. It provides huge amounts of protein whilst using very few natural resources. Moreover, it can be cultivated in many poor countries and can be used as feed for a range of farm animals if necessary whilst also providing jobs for local people for those who are yet to transition to a plant-based diet.
Treating Iron Deficiency – Seems Probable
Iron deficiency is widely accepted to be one of the biggest global nutritional problems and spirulina could definitely go a long way towards fixing that. A report published by the US National Library of Medicine confirmed that their data indicated that, “Spirulina may counteract anaemia” and whilst it said further research was needed other studies have produced similar findings.
Moreover, the already discussed general nutritional benefits and low environmental impact of its production mean spirulina is better than alternative iron-rich foods in other ways too.
Cancer, Fatigue, Allergies, Diabetes, Cholesterol – More Research Needed
For just about all the other touted ills it is claimed spirulina can cure, it seems the widely accepted opinion of the scientific community that more research is needed. In 2010, findings were published by the US National Library of Medicine’s National Institutes of Health that concluded as much. Whilst almost 10 years have passed since then there still remains too little in the way of hard evidence and their conclusion, detailed below, still stands.
At the moment, what the literature suggests is that spirulina is a safe food supplement without significant side-effects but its role as a drug remains to be seen.
Whilst the term “role as a drug” could be slightly misleading, we feel the point of the conclusion is equally valid in terms of its evidence-based application as a food supplement to help with the various issues listed.
Issues with Spirulina
Aside from the lack of really robust evidence to back up the claims made about this blue-green algae, there are a number of other issues to address in relation to spirulina.
Value for Money
Let us begin with one of the key questions that underpins most purchasing decisions: does spirulina offer value for money? Obviously if money is no object then feel free to skip on, but most vegans wanting to know whether they should take spirulina are sure to at least consider its price.
Much as we have said that spirulina could be of great help to those in the developing world, at present, it remains an expensive supplement. Whilst cheaper versions are now sold in some mainstream supermarkets, even they are far from cheap. There are a range of products available in health food shops and our favourite online vegan supermarkets like TheVeganKind but prices vary from around £20 a kilo to as much as £60 per kilo.
Now, whilst you might only use a relatively small amount per serving or each day, that is still a lot of money for many people in the United Kingdom. As cultivation becomes more widespread and demand grows that price could well drop but right now some may question whether spirulina really offers value for money. Yes, it is nutrient dense but it isn’t a food as such and all the nutrients it offers are available in foods that many vegans eat anyway and that are far more affordable.
We have just touched on a second concern and that is that typically spirulina is consumed in relatively small amounts. That’s good for your wallet but it does mean that some claims about the health benefits and micronutrients may be overstated.
Whilst you would easily eat 80g of lentils, quinoa or chickpeas, or 30g of nuts and seeds, or 100g or more of bread or potatoes in a given meal, when it comes to spirulina a more typical serving size is as little as two or three grams; whilst 10g would be at the higher end of the spectrum and few would ever have more than 15g in any one go. So, whilst 100g might well provide all the manganese you need, that isn’t especially great if you only consume 5g of the powder.
Interaction with Drugs
The last issue is perhaps the most serious and that concerns the way in which spirulina might interact with prescription drugs and possibly have adverse impacts on those people who have problems with their immune system. The vast majority of studies have concluded that the algae is by and large safe but if you are taking blood clotting drugs, have any liver or kidney problems, or have a weak immune system it is certainly best to consult your doctor first.
Moreover, according to another publication on the US National Institutes of Health website, there have been reports of contaminated spirulina being highly toxic. The algae tends to naturally filter out toxins and heavy metals but these, including dangerous microcystins, have been discovered in some spirulina products.
Thankfully, this is exceptionally uncommon and if you buy your spirulina from a reputable retailer that will certainly minimise any risk further.
In conclusion, we would say the following when it comes to spirulina in general and with regards vegans in particular:
- Spirulina is vegan in its pure form
- It is highly nutritious and a good way to get lots of vitamins and minerals without consuming much food or energy
- Those on a budget may be better obtaining their nutrients through a healthy, balanced, vegan diet
- It may help with many health issues but the science suggests it is best for weight loss and battling anaemia and iron deficiency
- It is generally accepted to be a safe food supplement