This buzzy, nutrient-rich plant food can be used in so many ways.

By Anthea Levi
July 26, 2018
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If you pay any attention to the wellness world, you may have noticed that spirulina has become a staple for healthy eaters lately. While the bright blue ingredient may look bizarre, spirulina comes with tons of health benefits. Just ask Carolyn Brown, RD, a nutritionist at Foodtrainers in New York City. “The bacteria is basically pond scum, but it’s so good for you!” she tells Health.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to slurp anything slimy to reap the health benefits of spirulina. Here, experts explain why this buzzy ingredient is so good, plus how to add it to your prepared foods and foods you cook at home. 

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What is spirulina?

Spirulina is a blue-green microalgae that typically grows in freshwater lakes, natural springs, and saltwater in subtropical and tropical climates. Like tons of hot superfoods (think: matcha), spirulina isn’t new. In fact, research suggests the ingredient has been consumed in places like central Africa for centuries.

According to Brown, the microalgae is typically dried and pulverized. After that, it can be combined with other superfood ingredients (think: wheatgrass, maca) or kept on its own and made into a powder that is then added to beverages or baked into solid foods. Another option is to consume spirulina as a supplement in capsule form.

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Spirulina health benefits

Wondering what spirulina can do for your health? Get ready for a long list. “Spirulina contains beneficial fatty acids such as DHA and GLA, as well as high antioxidant levels that can help protect the body against oxidative damage,” says Nathalie Rhone, RD, a nutritionist at Nutrition by Nathalie in New York City.

The blue-green algae is also packed with nutrients, including calcium, niacin, potassium, magnesium, B vitamins, and iron. “Calcium, potassium, and magnesium are all crucial for muscle, bone, and heart health, while B vitamins are responsible for our energy,” says Brown. Magnesium also helps lower stress levels. “We call it the ‘chill out’ mineral in higher doses.”

According to Brown, spirulina clocks in at an impressive 70% protein by weight, making it a stellar source of plant-based protein especially for vegans and vegetarians. Just one tablespoon of spirulina powder can provide six grams of protein, the same amount as an egg.

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While clinical trials studying the health outcomes linked to spirulina intake are limited, animal studies seem to suggest that the microalgae is worthy of its superfood status thanks to its hypolipidemic qualities—meaning the way it helps lower cholesterol. Spirulina may aid in lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol and raising “good” HDL cholesterol, which can in turn lower your risk of heart disease.

Spirulina vs. chlorella

If you know anything about algae-derived products, you may have heard about chlorella. Much like spirulina, chlorella is a nutrient-dense form of algae. But a few key differences distinguish the two superfoods. “Spirulina is a cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), while chlorella is a solid green algae that contains almost twice the amount of chlorophyll,” explains Rhone. “Chlorella has an indigestible cell wall that is harder for us to digest.”

Though they are similar, each type of algae delivers different benefits. “Spirulina is higher in protein and great for energy and performance, with some research showing it's especially beneficial for athletes and recovery,” says Brown.

Chlorella is better known for its cleansing capabilities. “Chlorella is higher in chlorophyll, which makes it fantastic for detoxing metals from the body, whether they come from fish or from environmental pollution,” says Brown. Also great: Chlorella is full of immune-boosting B12, an energy vitamin that’s especially critical for vegans and vegetarians.

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How to use spirulina

When it comes to ingesting spirulina, the experts we spoke to suggest starting off slow; its taste has been described as earthy and very savory, and it may take a bit of time to get used to. Once you are, add it to beverages. “Spirulina can be thrown into smoothies or juices,” says Rhone. “If adding spirulina into a smoothie, make sure to include plenty of fruit or flavorful herbs like mint to balance out its potent taste.”

Spirulina can also be taken in supplement form, and you can also bake with it. Another idea is to tap a plant-based powder that combines spirulina with other good-for-you ingredients. Navitas Organics Essential Superfood Blend ($20; amazon.com) also contains goji, maca, and camu camu. Keep in mind that most smoothie recipes that include spirulina only call for one teaspoon of it, so a little goes a long way.