What is Algae and Should You Eat It?
Algae are seaweed and other chlorophyll-containing plants that lack stems, roots, and leaves—but provide many health benefits.
When you hear the word algae, you might think of that green substance that settles at the bottom of a pool or floats on the top of a pond. You are right, that is algae, but there’s also the edible kind of algae, which contains tons of micronutrients important to our health.
Because it’s so important to get necessary nutrients from nature-grown foods—and sometimes what those foods are can be confusing—I wanted to break down everything you need to know about this plant. I’ll cover what algae is, the benefits of consuming it, plus where to get it and how to use it. First off, what is algae?
What is Algae?
Microalgae, which we’re talking about today, are tiny photosynthetic plants, which contain chlorophyll—the substance that gives them their intense green color. They take the energy from the sun and convert it to sugars and proteins essential to the body (and the plant themselves), and you can find them to both fresh water and saltwater environments.
While some algae can be toxic, we’re focusing on the edible kind that you can add to foods or mix into salads. A few common forms you might have heard of before include spirulina and chlorella, both of which come in both a powder and a pill form. Another popular edible seaweed is nori, which you’ll see in Asian cuisines, particularly the seaweed wrapped around sushi rolls.
What Are the Health Benefits of Algae?
Just one tablespoon of spirulina provides four grams of protein, along with a healthy dose of calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium. You’ll also get B vitamins and vitamin A, along with essential fats. Chlorella offers similar nutritional benefits. According to research, it’s also difficult to reach a toxic level of spirulina, making it a good choice to add to foods or take as a supplement on its own if in pill form (1). All of these vitamins and minerals help energize your body and help it run more efficiently, from protecting your immune system to fighting off diseases.
Research also shows that seaweed is high in powerful antioxidants that can provide some anti-cancer benefits (2). Furthermore, science suggests the high fiber content in a dose of seaweed could help control weight, and more specifically help fight obesity by decreasing fat digestion (3).
To round it out, microalgae contains carotenoids (a type of antioxidant) called zeaxanthin and lutein, both of which support eye health and brain health, along with disease prevention.
Algae: Where to Get it and How Much to Use
You’ll find spirulina and chlorella at most health food stores and some grocery stores (likely in the supplements aisle). You’ll also find nori or dried seaweed around the Asain cooking products. They’re typically sold just as you’d find protein powders—in a jar or bag and sold in large quantities.
The typical serving size for powered algae is one tablespoon. In pill form, you’ll find that you just need one or two to gain the benefits of the seaweed. While you probably don’t want to use more than that in one meal, you can also add in these into dishes throughout the day.
The main problem with going overboard on seaweed is that it can be very high in iodine—a key you want to keep an eye on when consuming. Iodine, when eaten in excess can eventually affect thyroid function, especially in though who have thyroid problems. Also, just like raw fish, seaweed can contain heavy metals like mercury, which can lead to poisoning, causing muscle weakness or numbness or trouble seeing or talking.
How to Incorporate Algae into Your Diet
My favorite way to add algae to my diet is in smoothies. You can easily toss a tablespoon into your favorite recipe, as it doesn’t influence the flavor too much, though it will at a slight leafy green taste. Another way to get algae in your diet is by adding to something like energy balls or protein bars. Here are a few of my top recipes that incorporate algae:
Do you have a favorite recipe featuring algae? How do you use it in your diet? Share below or with #nutritionstripped on social.
Gutiérrez-Salmeán G, Fabila-Castillo L, Chamorro-Cevallos G. (2015, July.) Nutritional and Toxicological Aspects of Spirulina (Arthrospira).
Koníčková R, Vaňková K, Vaníková J, Váňová K, Muchová L, Subhanová I, Zadinová M, Zelenka J, Dvořák A, Kolář M, Strnad H, Rimpelová S, Ruml T, J Wong R, Vítek L. (2014, March/April.) Anti-cancer effects of blue-green alga Spirulina platensis, a natural source of bilirubin-like tetrapyrrolic compounds.
- Newcastle University. (2010, March.) Seaweed to tackle rising tide of obesity.
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