Spirulina may be one of the oldest lifeforms on planet earth, but it doesn’t mean that this superfood is ancient history. In fact, spirulina has made a comeback in the recent years and gained the spotlight again on Instagram with food and wellness influencers creating delicious blue and green smoothie bowls and recipes that resemble works of art. Not to mention human clinical trials on spirulina that show a range of benefits including offering a variety of antioxidants & nutrients, and supporting your immune and cardiovascular systems.†
But before you run out to your local health food store or jump online to make a purchase of this amazing superfood, be aware that not all spirulina brands are created equal. In fact, the quality of spirulina can vary dramatically. Before you blend up a superfood smoothie with just any spirulina, make sure you check the following:
- Know your Source - Do you know where your spirulina is grown? Much of the spirulina on the market is grown internationally in countries such as China, Taiwan, Thailand, and India. But, there are a couple of spirulina farms in the US, one in Hawaii and one in California. These farms are located in the US and have a reputable history. Both companies are well-established since the early 1980s. US spirulina farms are FDA registered Food Facilities and must comply with Good Manufacturing Practices and Food Safety Modernization Act laws which are more rigorous than the requirements in foreign countries. Since spirulina is a water plant, the quality and purity of the water used in cultivation and the surrounding location also play a big part in the quality of the spirulina. Is your spirulina grown in potable fresh water with clean air, or in potentially dirty reservoir or river water in a polluted environment? Ask the manufacturer where they source their spirulina and if they aren’t able to provide this information, steer clear.
- Third-Party Certifications – Check to see if your spirulina has self-affirmed “certifications” or third-party certifications. If your spirulina has self-affirmed logos or “certifications” on their label, it only means that the company itself has verified the information to be true. Third-party certification means that an independent organization has reviewed and tested the final product to ensure that it complies with specific standards that the certification stands for. Common third-party certifications for spirulina supplements are Non-GMO Project Verified, Vegan.org, Gluten-Free, Kosher, and Halal. Another common certification for spirulina is “organic”. While normally organic products can be the better choice, this isn’t necessarily the case with spirulina and shouldn’t be taken at face value without more research into the brand. Again, get to know the source of the spirulina and where it came from. US grown spirulina brands do not carry “organic” certifications due to a technicality in the required nitrogen source, but it doesn’t mean that the quality is any less and, in many cases, it is better.
- Nutrient Levels & Label Claims – Since spirulina is a superfood, you’ll want to make sure it’s full of super nutrients. Check the Supplement Facts panel on the packaging to see what vitamins are listed and what the recommended dosage is of the spirulina. Higher quality spirulina will have a typical serving size of 3 grams with high levels of vitamins like vitamin A, vitamins K1 and K2, zeaxanthin, and total carotenoids. Spirulina from US farms often has higher nutrient content than foreign sourced product. The FDA only requires vitamins recognized as part of the Daily Recommended Value to be listed on food and supplement labels, but more comprehensive typical analysis’s may be available directly from the company.
- Harvest Methods and Packaging – The quality of the environment that spirulina grows in is VERY important, but the care shouldn’t stop once it’s ready for harvest. Spirulina is sensitive to heat, oxygen, and light so when drying spirulina, it should be dried quickly at a low temperature with minimal levels of oxygen present in order to help preserve the nutrients and enzymes. Plastic bottles can be porous and let damaging oxygen in so high-quality spirulina will normally be packed in amber-colored glass jars.
- Heavy Metals & Bacteria - The United States Pharmacopeia sets the levels of how much heavy metals are allowed in food. Like all natural foods, spirulina can contain small amounts of heavy metals but a high-quality spirulina will have very low levels that pose no risk to human health. The bacteria count should also be low and not in need or irradiation or sterilization, a practice which is common overseas but illegal in the US. Even though it’s illegal, foreign irradiated product may end up on retail shelves. You can ask for a Certificate of Analysis to verify the product if free of irradiation.
- Overall Smell & Taste – You’ve taken the plunge and want the nutritional and health benefits of spirulina because there are many! But you also want your food to still taste good in the process. Spirulina’s taste and smell may take some getting used to as it’s reminiscent of seaweed, but it shouldn’t be overwhelming. Blend it in a smoothie with some fruits and vegetables and enjoy!
Even though regulations are in place, it’s still up to the consumer to do their research and due diligence when making a purchase. I personally recommend US grown spirulina, specifically spirulina from Hawaii. Getting to know your spirulina brand and where it comes from is a great step towards making an educated choice in a “sea of spirulina.”
†These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Author: Julia Linhart, Certified Health Coach